Life's Obstacles Are CompoundedTry getting anywhere in Seoul with a baby in a stroller and you will vow never to do it again. Sidewalks are often nonexistent, forcing you to mix with the traffic. Where there are walkways, they are too narrow and are filled with parked vehicles or other obstacles.
Public buses are impossible to use because you cannot climb the steps with a stroller in tow. Try hailing a taxi on a busy street and more than a few empty cabs will speed by. The subway is impossible to get to without the generosity of fellow passengers to help you get down the stairs, because most stations do not have elevators. When you finally get on the train, older trains do not have space to park your stroller, making the ride a very uncomfortable one.
For many, such an experience may be the closest they will ever come to getting a glimpse of the daily struggles of the estimated 1.05 million physically disabled persons in Korea.
"The difficulties depend on the type of physical disability one has," said Bae Yung-ho, manager of research department at Easy Access for People with Disabilities in Korea (www.accessact.org), a civic group that advocates improving building, traffic and communications accessibility for the disabled.
The sidewalks are potentially hazardous to the physically handicapped. Blind people using canes can trip over the barriers that are placed on the pavements to prevent cars from parking illegally, for example.
"We risk our lives every time we go step out of our homes," said Mr. Bae, himself confined to a wheelchair. Even things that are meant to improve accessibility can be dangerous. Many of the sidewalks with raised spots meant to guide the blind are incorrectly placed, sometimes leading straight toward a tree.
Some facilities can even be fatal, as in the case of an elderly woman in a wheelchair who plunged to her death when the worn wires holding the platform lift snapped at Oido subway station on Jan. 22. "This accident was preventable, had regular maintenance been conducted," said Mr. Bae. There are about 100 such platform lifts, which are simplified elevators, in operation at various subway stations but they are not required by law to undergo regular maintenance checks.
Ironically, wheelchair stair lifts in subway stations are more common here than anywhere else in the world. "Such lifts should only be an auxiliary means of access where no elevators are available, but in Korea they are the main mode of getting around," Mr. Bae explained.
Not only are the wheelchair lifts dangerous, they are inconvenient as well. "The lifts in the subway stations that are located five to six floors below ground level take 20 minutes to call up from the platform level and another 20 minutes to go down," said Mr. Bae.
Other means of getting around for the physically disabled include call taxi services or specially equipped free shuttle buses operated by the Seoul Metropolitan Government that ply designated routes. Call taxis are too expensive for many and the shuttle buses run to just a small range of destinations. It is not surprising then that the preferred mode of transportation for the physically handicapped is having their own cars.
Mr. Bae had some harsh words for the new Incheon International Airport that prides itself in having outstanding facilities for the disabled. "It is an international embarrassment that there is not a single bus among the 400 or so buses that go in and out of the airport that is wheelchair accessible," said Mr. Bae. In fact, he said, Korea is listed in many Web travel sites for the disabled as a virtually inaccessible country.
Although legislation enacted in 1997 to improve accessibility for the disabled, the elderly and pregnant women has done much to address the issue, school accessibility still remains a major problem. There are no provisions in the law making it mandatory for schools to have facilities for the physically disabled, explained Mr. Bae, who did not get formal education in schools before going to college because of a lack of access.
However, the absence of legal provisions does not mean that nothing can be done. Junggye Middle School recently installed an elevator to aid Park Mi-yeon, a third-year student with muscular dystrophy, securing the 170 million won ($130,000) for the project from the Bukbu Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.
"The school decided that an elevator would serve not only Mi-yeon but others who may not be able to use the stairs because of an injury, as well as other disabled students who may enroll in our school in the future," said Kim Byung-kook, school principal. Now that the school is wheelchair-accessible, Mr. Kim is inviting physically disabled students in his school district to attend his school. "Of the 36 middle schools in our school district, we are the only one with an elevator," he explained.
Countering the argument that it is too costly to install facilities － elevators cost as much as 1 billion won to install in older subway stations － Mr. Bae said: "People need to recognize that an elevator in the subway station is not just for the disabled but for public use as well."
'It is an international embarrassment that there is not one bus to Incheon airport that is wheelchair-accessible.'
by Kim Hoo-ran