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Winter Paralympics Handbook: Disabled Women Are Human Too

March 12, 2018

I’m sorry, but as a disabled woman, I strongly feel that any country that needs to write that sentence anywhere should not be hosting a Paralympics at any time of year!

South Korea was celebrated for the way it hosted the Winter Olympics, but in the first edition of its volunteer handbook, published in January, it felt it necessary to remind volunteers, known as the Passion Crew, that “a female disabled is also a female human being”. So is it ready to host the Paralympics?

South Korea is famed for its technology and fast-pace, its difficult relationship with North Korea and of course K-Pop which burst on to the Western music scene with Gangnam Style. But it hasn’t always been as forward-thinking when it comes to women, especially if they’re disabled.

“Women could never be heroes,” travel writer, Seoul-dweller and disability campaigner Seyoon Jane Hong, 30, says.

“Until the 20th Century, everything was male-centred.

“Even now if you are young, you may experience unfairness. When you’re a woman, oppression is added. And if there is a disability, it is triple discrimination.”

It’s something she and her friends face, but the country is in flux – divided by age, gender and ability – perhaps not too dissimilar to the UK.

“Baby Boomers and the older generation give more value to economic development than human rights, peace and equality,” she says. “To them, disabled people are patients who need help.

“Younger generations, on the other hand, are much more flexible. They acknowledge that various people live together in society and regard people as important rather than economic.”

Hong has been in a wheelchair for 20 years after she contracted a spinal cord virus – aged 10.

She spent years confined to Seoul, South Korea’s capital, until she decided to travel alone when the first accessible express train, KTX was completed.

She felt liberation and wanderlust – emotions that had never been experienced by disabled people older than her.

Hong recalls elderly women telling her how their lives were stunted by the perception of their disability. They were dehumanised – forced to marry older men, or unsuitable disabled men, because remaining single was unacceptable.

“They have not been recognised for their femininity because they may have difficulty in bearing and nurturing children,” she says. “They experienced repression and frustration from the people around them. There was no opportunity.”

She says expectations have changed and, in 2018, there is less emphasis on marriage and beauty, and those with disabilities are “free to love and get married or spontaneously stay single”.

As a United Nations member, South Korea follows the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention includes the equal rights of women and children who are disabled.

Since the 1990s, disabled children have attended mainstream school. Hong is young enough to have benefitted from this inclusive step forward, although she says her own experience was challenging.

“If the teacher had a strong understanding of the disability, it was easy to participate in the class. But if not, it was difficult.”

Preconceptions have started to change, with talks and outreach programmes in place. There are many disabled students at university although youth unemployment is high and, for those with disabilities, it’s even worse.

The OECD, the club of industrialised nations, says 5% of South Korea’s 50 million population are registered disabled and, of those, 64.5% are unemployed according to Human Rights Korea.

The government has tried to combat these high figures by taxing companies £637 annually if they don’t employ 1.5 disabled people for every 50 people they hire. But according to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, more than half of all companies opt to pay the fine instead.

Britain doesn’t have a quota system but other European countries like Germany and Austria do – and are said to have a similar pushback from employers.

Those in South Korea who are unable to find work can apply for benefits through a controversial grading system based entirely on medical assessments rather than factors such as whether someone lives rurally or in the city.

Hong says the money is never enough and leaves many people “having to rely on their families”.

There are some spotlight areas of progress, most noticeably in the creative sector with disabled contributors featuring more in newspapers and on TV.

KBS, the state-run broadcaster, made headlines around the world in 2011 when it employed Lee Chang-hoon as a TV news anchor.

Chang-hoon lost his sight as a baby but, at the age of 27, he impressed the producers with his ability to read and write scripts quickly in Braille and became the first of a number of disabled presenters.

In the online world, animator Laila – who is deaf – has made her mark with popular web comic I Am Deaf, which is about living in South Korea without hearing.

An enthusiastic 9.4 million people read “webtoons” each day and Hong describes Laila’s story as “popular with everyone”.

In one of its 200 episodes, the main character is mystified when a sweet potato is thrown at them. It turns out to be hurled by a visitor when the character doesn’t hear the doorbell.

Despite the bizarre storyline, people seem to relate to these skits, with one person commenting: “I can only hear from one side of the ear, but I could already identify a lot with you, I’m learning how to understand others through you.”

Hong herself is the author of Europe, There’s No Reason Not to Go, a guide which documents her wheelchair travels. She is passionate that all disabled people have the chance to explore internationally and says it’s a route into social participation.

But overseas travel has highlighted the accessibility challenges she still has in her own country.

About 70% of buses in Seoul do not have low floors – making them inaccessible for wheelchairs. Bus companies don’t want to invest in a minority, and, with its many cars and illegal street parking, Seoul is unfriendly for blind people, Hong says.

This jars a little with the country’s adoption of the UN Convention which “requires” each signatory to “identify and eliminate obstacles and barriers and ensure that disabled people can access their environment and transportation”.

The world has been focused on Pyeongchang as a Winter Olympic and Paralympic host. We think of the host venues as cities, but this is a region – with a ski resort – and it has given the country chance to showcase how far it has come.

A high-speed train, suitable for wheelchairs, will shuttle spectators to the Games – and the Paralympic committee has ensured there are parking areas, ramps and accessible accommodation.

Hong sees Pyeongchang 2018 as an opportunity for people to communicate about the global future of disability and says South Korea is ready for the Winter Paralympics.

“You do not have to speak a foreign language in this age. You can talk as you and I do with a translator. What is important is meeting people in the world who share the same values.

“I want to meet more disabled people in the world. That way, you can apply better values back to Korea, and we can distribute the great value of Korea to others.”

Despite requests for a statement on the wording in the volunteer handbook, the organisers of Pyeongchang 2018, did not respond to the BBC.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said it had requested the clumsy wording be updated and said the phrase may have been lost in translation.

As per the IPC’s request, the webpage containing a link to the booklet was “temporarily [taken] down for system update” – but this has remained the case for over a month and now the games are under way.

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