The struggle to make arts accessible to all

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The struggle to make arts accessible to all


Painter Lee So-yeon works on a piece at the office of Special Arts, an art management company located in southern Seoul. She is one of 10 artists who train and regularly participate in art exhibitions including those held outside the company. [SPECIAL ARTS]

While enjoying culture and the arts was historically a privilege that only the wealthy got to enjoy, society now accepts that engaging with more creative pursuits is an important aspect of a quality life.

In line with this shift in attitude, the range of services and products designed to help people with physical impairments access cultural experiences is widening as more companies work to smooth out infrastructure barriers and develop tailored programs to cater for users of all abilities.

While in the past these efforts were generally funded by government initiatives, a growing number of start-ups and organizations are now choosing to invest their own money in sectors such as travel and content creation.


Traveling on the rise

Amuse Travel has been designing travel products tailored to people with different impairments since 2016. It sends customers to Jeju Island and countries like Japan and Singapore and connects them with hosts that live in and understand the destination. Amuse Travel’s local partners work with the guides to provide accommodation, transportation and necessary information for people with impairments to travel in an unfamiliar area.

Each travel plan is personalized depending on a customer’s specific needs. For people who use a wheelchair, keeping track of accessible toilets and ramps is a must. Guides who accompany those with visual impairments make sure that they provide a sufficient explanation of the site’s surroundings and offer experiences that concentrate on other senses, such as good-quality food. Those with hearing impairments travel with a sign language translator.

“The population of impaired people in Korea is 2.5 million and the number rises every year due to those who acquire an impairment later in life,” said Amuse Travel CEO Oh Seo-yeon.

“[A lot of our customers have] just started to venture outdoors, discovering new realms to enjoy in life. We also conducted interviews with foreigners and a lot of them said they didn’t know [such a traveling service] was available in Korea and that they would very much love to visit here. In short, I believe the business has full market potential.”

From 2016 to 2017, the average number of phone inquiries asking about the service skyrocketed from 10 calls per month to 100.

Another travel agency specialized for customers with impairments is Doori Hamkkey - “hamkkey” sounds like the Korean word for together. The company mainly offers trips to Jeju Island, where sightseers that don’t have access to a vehicle can find it very difficult to get around. Doori Hamkkey was the first local travel agency to have a bus capable of transporting six to seven wheelchairs at once.

“What we’re doing here is not an act of charity, but a travel business,” said CEO Lee Bo-gyo. “But still there are people that view our clients as a subject, not dynamic and proactive travelers [that are capable of making their own decisions].”


Peach Market adapts books to have simpler sentences and words. The non-profit aims to make good-quality content available to everyone. [PEACH MARKET]

More arts and books

Programs and products for people with intellectual impairments aim to satisfy their social needs. In Korea, most governmental support for education or training for those with intellectual impairments stops once they enter adulthood. A lot of people only interact with family and social workers.

Formerly an art therapist, Kim Min-jung heads Special Arts, an art management company that represents a group of 10 artists with intellectual impairments, among which eight are in their 20s. The organization holds exhibitions that present the artists’ works and publicizes them so their output can be seen by external exhibition organizers and goods manufacturers.

“In 2015 when I launched the project, I had to make suggestions first to introduce our artists, but recently we’re starting to receive contacts firsthand that come looking for specific artists to work with them on exhibitions or products,” said Kim.

Kim makes it clear that Special Arts is not a charity organization but an art management company that pursues profit and higher publicity for its artists. Artists in the group are selected based on their portfolio and interviews in which Kim sees whether the artist is able to create their work without assistance - a necessary check that Kim believes shows if someone has the potential to become a marketable artist.

For two years, the selected artists learn to use new ingredients like different kinds of paint and objects. Kim also sees this process as a training period for them to learn the working pattern of an artist that requires long hours of concentration. Special Arts’ artists don’t receive formal art education and are not swayed by external opinions or popular trends. Kim believes this is what makes their work unique.

“There’s a perception that people with intellectual impairments have to be helped in some way, but what we’re doing here is elevating artists - their quality of work creates the name value of our company in the art scene,” she said. “We don’t use the word impaired in our exhibitions, nor when a member of the group participates in external art events - they’re just artists.”

Peach Market is a non-profit organization working to offer cultural content and activities to people with intellectual impairments.

Its area of expertise is books. Since its launch in 2015, the organization has made around 20 books published in versions tailored to people not only with intellectual impairments but also those that struggle to concentrate due to disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It also plans sessions and book concerts where they invite customers to read together.


A clock featuring the work of Choi Cha-won, an artist from Special Arts. [SPECIAL ARTS]

A law major, CEO Ham Eui-young struggled with ridiculously long and complex texts as a student, quickly coming to realize that the way some documents are written can completely exclude people that find the challenging language difficult. Before the election last year, the organization published the collection of pledges that presidential candidates make in simplified language.

“Our books have shorter sentences and repeat information relevant to the plot throughout the book so that readers can follow the entire story,” said Ham. “Before, teachers [working with people with impairments] had no choice but to use folklore books for reading classes even for teenage students. Now, they tell us they’re surprised how much the kids are able to understand.”

Fighting for access

In December a group of four plaintiffs with visual and hearing impairment won a legal battle against Korea’s three largest cinema operators - CGV, Megabox and Lotte Cinema - regarding their limited access to movies.

Ruling in the plaintiff’s favor, the Seoul Central District Court ordered the three companies “to provide [individual support or devices that offer] subtitles and audio descriptions received from production houses or distributors so that plaintiffs can enjoy movies like able-bodied people.”

While some cinemas already offer barrier-free movies - with both subtitles and audio descriptions - the movies available and the times that they are shown are so limited that they only accounted for 0.057 percent of all movies played nationwide between March 2016 and Oct. 2017.

Currently audio descriptions are dubbed over the movie, making the viewing experience difficult for accompanying family and friends. Providing individual devices would make the experience more inclusive for anyone, allowing people with impairments to enjoy the experience without isolating themselves.

The plaintiffs argued that the insufficient infrastructure that limited their access to watching movies at theaters violated the Disability Discrimination Law implemented in 2007.

The case is still ongoing as the three cinema brands appealed the ruling.

“This is the first case a court has ruled regarding impaired people’s rights to enjoy cultural activities,” Lim Sung-taek, one of the lawyers that represented the plaintiffs, told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “If the case goes well, we expect it to set a precedent in eradicating discrimination regarding the rights of people with impairments to fully enjoy cultural content.”

In a 2014 report from the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, 96 percent of survey respondents with impairments answered that watching television was the cultural activity they had engaged in during the previous week. Traveling was selected by only 9.8 percent and watching movies by only 7.1 percent of respondents. Engaging in creative activities was even smaller, at 4 percent.

The lack of infrastructure is a problem at concert halls and stadiums as well. Muui, a nonprofit that offers transit information for people with impairments, contacted 21 concert halls with more than 1,000 seats in the Seoul metropolitan area to ask if they had wheelchair access. Only 11 reported that they had proper mobility access seating with safety bars, additional seats for family members or friends and a large sticker that implies the area is reserved for wheelchair users.

Muui founder Hong Yun-hui said that even among the venues that offered wheelchair access seating, the location was often unsuitable.

In general, the more recently a building was built, the better the access is, but Hong said that infrastructure isn’t the only factor that decides the quality of the concert experience. How supportive and well trained the staff is can seriously impact an impaired visitor’s day at the theatre.

“I see it as a cycle of perception and infrastructure - the more people have an understanding for those in wheelchairs, the more infrastructure is built, and this in turn will prompt more people using wheelchairs to come out and use them,” she said.

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