Fitting in

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Fitting in

In an office in Noryangjin, Seoul, more than 50 female telemarketers are working in small cubicles, creating an incessant din as they all speak at once.

They're all wearing hands-free headsets, and their fingers nimbly traverse the keyboards even as their eyes stay trained on the monitors. All, that is, save two who seem to be staring off into nowhere while they work.

Seong Eun-jeong and her colleague Cho Jin-wook, who work side-by-side at a multinational telemarketing company, are blind. Ms. Seong, 20, has been blind since age 3, when she contracted meningitis. The disease also left her partially paralyzed, unable to move her arms and legs well. Ms. Cho, 22, was born blind.

The two women call customers to verify data, which they enter in the company's records using speech-recognition software.

Ms. Seong graduated from the Hanbit School for the Blind in Suyu-dong, Seoul, in 1999 with 14 other students. "About half of my class found jobs," she says in a clear, soft voice. She says most of those who got work are employed as masseurs or acupuncturists, vocations that the blind in Korea have traditionally turned to.

With her lack of mobility, working as a masseuse was out. Ms. Seong enrolled in a telemarketing course and a year later, in January 2000, landed a part-time job at the French firm, IMC-Teleperformance. In August she became the firm's first disabled full-time employee.

For the 1.45 million disabled people in Korea, getting a job is tough. A survey of the disabled done two years ago by a government institute found the unemployment rate among the disabled to be 28 percent, at the time about seven times that of the general population.

The joblessness persists despite government attempts to provide more opportunities for the handicapped. Seoul even designated April 20 as "Day of the Disabled." In 1990, laws were passed requiring workplaces with more than 300 employees to have 1 percent of their employees be disabled, with the quota rising incrementally each year. Since 1993, those companies have been required to fill 2 percent of their posts with the disabled.

But compliance is dismal. Last year, among the firms required to meet the hiring quota, less than 1 percent of their work force was disabled, on average, according to the government. Firms that fail to meet the quota are subject to monthly fines of 392,000 won ($300) times the difference between the quota and their count of disabled workers.

Earlier this year, businesses successfully blocked a plan that would have forced companies with more than 100 employees to meet the same quota. The small businesses pointed out that large companies and government agencies aren't even meeting theirs. Korea's 30 largest companies have an average disabled employment rate of 0.7 percent.

The employers say that having people with disabilities in the workplace often entails making special provisions and arrangements, which result in added costs. For example, Ms. Seong and Ms. Cho work from 9 to 5, while their co-workers work until 6. "We wanted them to be able to get home before dark, especially in the winter," says Kim Cheong-ja, the two women's supervisor. It takes Ms. Cho more than 90 minutes to commute by subway to work. Ms. Seong just moved from Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi province, a two-hour bus ride, to a room just 20 meters from the office. The women's employer, by the way, is not subject to the quota.

Another problem with hiring the disabled is job performance. "Productivity is lower compared with other workers," says Ms. Kim, adding that she finds more errors in data input by Ms. Seong and Ms. Cho than the average.

For companies engaged in plant operations and manufacturing, the nature of their work precludes hiring people with disabilities.

"People with disabilities have very limited options when it comes to work," says Lee Ja-young, who oversees vocational training at the Korea Association of the Welfare Center for the Disabled. But Ms. Lee says she thinks the limits are rooted in prejudice. "People have long held that the blind can only work as masseurs or acupuncturists because those are the only things they have seen blind people do."

With the country's drive to become an information society, more opportunities are opening up in the information technology sector. Accordingly, the government last year initiated an IT training program for the disabled. In addition, computer animation and accounting courses are available at state-run welfare centers.

In Ms. Lee's view, however, it will take two or three years for the government initiative to yield results. "Although we offer Web design and software development training, none of our disabled students have landed jobs," she says.

In Korea, only about 10 percent of the disabled were born with their disabilities; the other 90 percent became handicapped through accidents or illnesses. Ms. Lee is trying to make the public more aware of that in order to engender more sympathy.

"That may change people's perceptions and in turn create more job opportunities for people with disabilities," she says.

Asked what she does in the evening hours, Ms. Seong replies, "I am preparing for what I want to do in the future." She says she would like to break away from the mold that society has cast on people with disabilities. "I love children and I would like to be a kindergarten teacher one day."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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