Jul. 19  2024
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Highlight 2002 Part 1: Disabled People's Movement

PICIS brings to you a three part series introducing some of the most noticeable movements or struggles that took place during the year 2002. Of course, the year 2002 will be recorded as a historical year especially for public workers of Korea; however, in this series we are more focused on the movements and struggles we think are not be so well known outside of Korea. The first of the series is the disabled people's movement, which has consistently implemented militant struggles against discrimination and to attain liberation of disabled persons. -PICIS

Source  :  PICIS

Mobilizing Anger Against Discrimination and Oppression

The Far-East Asia & South Pacific Games for Disabled (FESPIC) came to a close on 1st November, after seven days of intense competition among disabled athletes. The FESPIC Games attracted more attention than was expected of an event for disabled people, highlighting the strenuous effort made by the athletes despite the hardships and poverty they have to face in everyday life. Indeed, the athletes should be praised for their braveness and the achievements that they have made. However, if the government ?who was the official bidder for the Games- thinks that they have done all they could do for the disabled people simply by glorifying the athletes, they could not be more wrong. The glory and the praise that the athletes received ?which they deserve- only show a very small part of the lives that disabled people are leading in Korea, if not cover up their reality. While the government has spent billions on the opening and closing ceremony spectacles, it has not been too generous to the majority of disabled people, who live in poverty with no access to any rights. While government officials appeared on various TV shows and radio interviews to tell the public how much effort they had put into the welfare for the disabled, disabled people are arrested by police for demanding basic rights.

Although the disabled people¡?s movement has been active in Korea for the last couple of decades, it found new momentum with the struggles against the Ephatha Foundation, which started six years ago. Also, the fight for right of mobility pushed forth with exceptional militancy this year and the struggle for welfare rights and social protection gave the disabled people¡?s movement a boost.

Brief History of Disabled People's Movement in Korea

The modern disabled movement in Korea could be said to have started from the fight to legislate ¡°Promotion of Disabled Employment and Disabled Welfare Act just after the Great Workers' Struggles of 1987, when various disabled groups in Korea formed a solidarity for the laws to be enacted. Of course, actions and campaigns for and by disabled people did exist before the 1980¡?s; however, it was only during the latter part of 1980¡?s that the disabled people¡?s movement began to identify itself within the material reality of the social structure of the time. The disabled people started to view the roots of their discrimination and poverty as resulting from the socio-economic structure of the society.

Throughout the 1970¡?s and the beginning of the 1980¡?s religious groups and social welfare groups dominated the disabled movement, which mostly dealt with legislative matters. They showed their limit in that they were looking at the disabled people and their situation with the humanitarian ideology of ¡°love¡±, and as a result, attributed the discrimination against the disabled people unto the disabled themselves. The disabled people on their part could not escape from the temptation to evade the structural problems of the society that marginalizes the disabled, and to rely on religion. The lack of socio-economic perspective in the disabled movement of the time went in tandem with inability for the public to respond to the campaigns and struggles that the disability-related groups were implementing ?whether it be legislation to promote employment or campaign to allow disabled students to enter university. Even the series of suicides by four disabled people in 1981 failed to break the silence of the public.

However, from the beginning of 1980¡?s disabled activists started to take on a structural perspective and to directly confront ruling institutions. One noticeable trend, which started at this time and laid the foundation for a much stronger movement later on, was campaigns performed by students who demanded that universities open their doors to disabled students. The students were initially motivated by their disallowance to enter university, but spread their activities to include other areas of discrimination against disabled people and even took to the streets to manifest the reality of the lives of the disabled. The students, stimulated also by the mass pro-democracy and university autonomy movements of the time, contributed to raising the social voice of disabled people. They started to tell the public that suicides committed by the disabled people were not problems of the individual, but problems brought on by the society. Also, they did not rely on their parents and support groups to make appeals to the university and the government, but took the problem into their own hands.

The Great Workers¡? Struggle of 1987 was not simply a mass strike by the workers, who in the end succeeded in winning concessions from the government, but was an occasion when the desire for democracy and equality exploded in all parts of society. The disabled people¡?s movement also received a boost from the 1987 event. Many new organizations ?including some militant student groups- were established during the latter part of 1980¡?s. Some of the militant groups who had armed themselves with a strengthened socio-economic perspective directly involved themselves in the presidential elections of 1987, and took to the streets against the 1988 Paralympic Games that were being held in Seoul. During 1988 and 1989, a broad solidarity was formed by various disability groups to push the government to newly legislate or revise laws concerning employment and social protection of disabled persons. Disability groups also formed alliances with other social and civil organizations in voicing out their opposition to the regime. Although many of the disabled groups had a limited political perspective in that they were focused on the integration of disabled people into the capitalist system instead of going a step further to overcome it, the broad solidarity within and outside of disability circles all the more emphasized the need for a materialistic approach to social discrimination.

The fervour of the disabled people¡?s movement that was sparked in the end of the decade continued into the 1990¡?s. However, the more the movement developed, the more challenges it faced. First of all, because a majority of disabled people lived in dire poverty, which also meant that they had no mobility, it was near to impossible to organize them. The disabled who were organized were those who were lucky enough to come from families who could afford proper wheelchairs and transportation, or those with minor disability. Also, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 triggered a vacuum to be formed in terms of possibility of political and economic transformation. It came as a hard blow especially to those disabled activists and students who had just begun to explain the materialistic status of the disabled and the prospects for fundamental change. As a result, disabled people¡?s movement in much part of the 1990¡?s tended to focus mainly on struggling and lobbying for laws. On the one hand, the disabled people¡?s movement of 1990¡?s stopped short of developing a full structural perspective of their disability and narrowed itself to legislation. However, the movement did achieve major breakthroughs in pushing for laws to protect employment opportunities and human rights of the disabled.

Struggle against Ephatha

One momentum, which came during the 1990¡?s, that heralded the renewal of militant disabled people¡?s movement was the struggle that broke out at the Ephatha Welfare Center for Deaf Children in 1996. On 26th November 1996, children with hearing disabilities accommodated at the Ephatha Center started a sit-in protest, unable to bear any longer the starvation and cold. They were brutally suppressed by the center with help from the police, during which one child died (which the Center and the police tried to cover up as suicide, but her body was covered with bruises). Disability groups quickly formed a coalition to support the deaf children and to protest against the violence committed by the Center and the police. In the process of protesting against the crackdown, support groups were shocked to find out that the deaf children at Ephatha had undergone forced labour, beatings, trafficking, sexual violence and even murder throughout many years. Also, the foundation of the Center turned out to be corrupt family business that had forged, manipulated and embezzled State support, under the auspices of the local government.

The coalition, consisting at first mainly of disabled people¡?s groups started a campaign demanding resignation of the present board of directors and punishment of Pyeongtaik local government officials who had collaborated in the charade. The coalition implemented sit-ins and hunger strikes in front of Pyeongtaik local government, direct actions and mass demonstrations in central Seoul. The movement quickly spread to include many social organisations, which had previously never been involved in anything concerning the disabled. Although a new board of directors was installed in 2001, the struggle still continues to fight against and manifest the exploitation committed by the former management.

The disabled people¡?s movement was rather an unknown realm among other social movements. However, when reality of the Ephatha Center was revealed to the world, disabled student groups quickly sought solidarity with other student movement groups within each university, and this solidarity quickly spread to other organizations and movements. The coalition kept on mobilizing and succeeded in awakening the public about the reality in which the disabled people lived. The structural approach that the students had developed helped others to view the problem of disability as being related to other social problems, and the solidarity, in turn, further radicalized the disabled people¡?s movement. The struggle against Ephatha was no longer a struggle merely for the disabled by the disabled but a struggle for democratization of welfare institutions, and went even further to becoming a fight to attain human rights and protect public services.

Fight for Right of Mobility

According to a survey, 51.6% of disabled people have only finished elementary school or lower, and 70% are unemployed. There are, of course, many reasons to this low rate of education and employment, but one obvious practical reason is the absolute lack of accessibility. Close to 70% of the disabled population have difficulty in mobility. Unfortunately, disabled people not only face difficulty, but also danger.

In January 2001, the steel rope of an elevator at a subway station broke and crashed with two elderly disabled people inside the elevator. One person died from the accident. The accident immediately aroused outrage from disability organizations, and quickly spread to other movements and organizations, which now had experience and a firm perspective through the struggles against Ephatha. A committee was formed to tackle the problem of the accident itself, and to bring to trial those who were responsible for the malfunction of the elevator.

Then on 20th April ¡°Disabled People¡?s Day¡±, disabled groups together with social organizations held several direct action campaigns, differentiating themselves from the mainstream organizations that are content to participate and receive ¡°human victory¡± awards at the fancy

Disabled People¡?s Day ceremonies held by the government. The organizations went onto form the ¡°Solidarity for Mobility Rights of Disabled¡±, to deal with general mobility rights of the disabled. Another death in May at another station triggered further mobilization. The Solidarity, led by the wheelchair-ridden Park Kyeong-Seok, works with the combination of direct action and struggle for legislation of new laws.

Disabled people came out into the streets in their wheelchairs and crutches, got on buses and trains to demonstrate that they can¡?t. Disabled activists bound themselves to rails of subways, tore away lifts (installed in stations but proved to be very dangerous), raided official buildings, performed hungers strikes, despite apprehension and arrests by the police. They actively educated the workers and other activists about their cause, while participating at various rallies in solidarity. The immediate objective maybe to attain accessible buses and trains, but their outlook goes far beyond ?to fighting against social and economic discrimination in general, and to making fundamental changes to the world we are living in.

Struggle for Welfare Rights and Social Protection

In 1999, President Kim Dae-Jung brought forth a new social support legislation. The legislation was introduced to make a ¡Rcushion¡? for the rise in poverty levels after the economic crisis. The new laws and policies on social support and welfare ?stipulating that welfare is the inherent responsibility of the State and right of citizens- were improvements compared to the previous system that emphasized clientelism. However, the ¡Rimprovements¡? turned out not only to fall short of the measures that are desperately needed, but also to act as an ideology to camouflage the neoliberal offensive. The new system appears as though it is expanding the boundaries of those eligible to receive support, but is in fact shifting the responsibility of social protection to individuals and to private capital.

The disabled people are one group of people who are losing out on their welfare rights under the new system. Since the legislation, a woman with a severe case of cerebral palsy started a protest demanding better access to social welfare. At the moment, minimum living expenses fall very much short of the amount needed in reality. She started a hunger strike and a sit-in at the Myeongdong Cathedral courtyard, but eventually death took her away.

Choi Ok-Ran¡?s death raised outrage at the inability of the present regime to meet the needs of the people, and manifested the reality of the welfare system that the government so enjoys to boast. The death became even more of an outrage when police blocked by force the public funeral and ¡Rconfiscated¡? her body. Her death raised a sense of urgency in activist circles to fight for the rights of the poor to social support and welfare. Many groups had already been formed to look at the issue of social welfare as a right that should be fought for in the name of the working class. The round of campaigns and protests that were triggered by the death of Choi Ok-Ran and the mobilization of disabled people, formed a massive solidarity between those fighting for rights of the disabled and those who were fighting for social security of the working class.

The struggle against Ephatha, which continues well into its sixth year, the fight for mobility rights and the struggle for welfare rights are just some of the issues that the radical disabled movements implemented during the last few years. There were also protests organized by disabled workers, while feminist disabled organizations were formed to deal with sexual violence and intense discrimination that especially women face. With more and more disabled students entering university, disabled students groups inside universities no longer stop at being socializing clubs but have become centers of student activism for human rights.

The diversity and radicalization within the disabled people¡?s movement comes from the strengths from itself, but also from forging solidarity with other social movements. The disabled people now appear at almost all major demonstrations, rallying for their rights as well as of others. Social movements, which up till now had not paid much attention to the issue of the disabled, have also been stimulated and broadened in perspective.

Park Kyeong-Seok, representative of Solidarity for Mobility Rights of Disabled, says, ¡°We must throw away the cape of clientelism that justifies discrimination and oppression against disabled people in this capitalist society, and must expose the truth, the conspiracy, the hypocrisy. Moreover, disabled people must understand all these contradictions, hypocrisy and lies not as individual problems but as those arising from social structures. Without this understanding, disabled people will not be able to break away from the slavery under the present system and the conservative ruling elites, and will not be able to go forth to their liberation.

We must mobilize our anger and our struggles against the discrimination and oppression. I am not talking simply about fierce fighting but about scientific struggles. The solution to the problems of disabled people lies in eliminating the mask that hides the contradictions of capitalism ?the contradictions of production and contradiction of human relationships- and in fundamentally changing the society.

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BASE21 News Desk

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