An awakening on disabilities

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An awakening on disabilities

Lee Sang-eon

The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

“People with no disabilities are begging for money on the street here. That’s very strange. In Korea, most of them are people with disabilities,” I murmured when I passed by a homeless person who repeatedly demanded, “Spare change, please!” from passersby in front of a subway station in the Britain. At that moment, my professor who was with me was surprised. He asked, “Does that mean people who can’t work due to their physical impairments can only sustain their lives by begging for money on the street in Korea?”

The memories I had when I studied at graduate school in Britain in 1992 are still vivid. My embarrassment at the unexpected reaction from the professor and a mixed feeling were intense. I managed to answer the professor’s question. “As a developing country, Korea has just started to establish welfare systems. There are still many who suffer a double whammy of poverty and disabilities from the Korean War and underdevelopment.” I just wanted to brag about Korean diligence but ended up defending the level of development of my country.

To me, a number of British people with no disabilities roaming around the street and begging for money looked “abnormal,” while to the professor, incomprehensible was the fact that handicapped people had to beg for money to survive in a country that successfully staged the Olympics just four years earlier and exported cars and consumer electronics.

After going through the Asian financial crisis few years later, Western-style homeless appeared in downtown parks in Seoul and around subway stations in Korea. In the meantime, the number of homeless declined noticeably in Britain thanks to brisk social rehabilitation programs. The gap in social safety nets between the two countries also narrowed remarkably. In Korea, too, the state takes responsibility for the lives of people with disabilities. Despite apparent drawbacks and loopholes, Korea established a fundamental frame for social safety nets. To foreigners, it could be a dramatic transformation.

“I am sorry for my reaction to your elder twin sister with Down Syndrome. I apologize for my overreaction at the first encounter. But frankly, we have never learned in school or home how to treat people with such disabilities. I just did not know how to deal with them,” says the protagonist of the TV drama “Our Blues” to his girlfriend. That’s a confession of a guilt the protagonist felt after inflicting an emotional scar on his girlfriend all by accident.

I also have never learned how to treat people with disabilities. In my school days, there was no special class for students with disabilities. Instead, the education system for the disabled and non-disabled were totally separate. As a result, we don’t know how to deal with people with disabilities when we meet them first.
A scene from the popular TV drama series “Extraordinary Attorney Woo.” [ENA CHANNEL] 

Two years ago, the head of a political party was criticized for stroking a guide dog for a visually impaired person. That was the first time when I knew you shouldn’t do that. While watching the “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” I realized that I still know nearly nothing about certain disabilities and how to treat people with them.

I learned from the TV drama that you should not approach persons with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) too closely, should be careful about physical contact with them and should not speak loudly to them. I also knew that a suddenly changed environment can trigger a panic attack or self-injury. Attorney Woo says, “As my inside is full of my selves, it makes people close to me lonely. I don’t know why and how that happens. I also don’t know how to prevent it.” Listening to the lines, I came to comprehend ASD just a bit. K-drama helps fill the void left by our regular school education.

The head of a rehabilitation and retraining center in Seoul who takes care of 50 people with developmental disorders confessed that she cried many times while watching the drama. “Because the drama repackaged as a lovely success story of a woman with ADS was so different from reality — and because the drama nevertheless helped the non-disabled understand the deep pains of the disabled — I cried over and over,” she said. Coexistence demands empathy. Negligence produces a fear and a fear leads to avoidance.
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