Student Contributions

The History of Disability Rights Movement in the United Kingdom  

While disability and labor rights are not always analyzed in tandem, in the United Kingdom, disability and labor are historically intertwined. In a more contemporary context, some disabled activists advocate for the right to work, citing exclusion from the workforce as an example of ableist discrimination. However, in Industrial Era England, labor and disability often went hand in hand. With the emergence of factories and coal mines during the Industrial Revolution, workplaces became sites of disability due to the commonality of work-related injuries. This was particularly true in coal mines, which are often perceived as places where disabled people were barred from working. However, because it was common for family members to work alongside one another, disabled workers were often able to continue working despite injuries with the assistance of kin. In addition, because different areas of the coal mining industry required diverse levels of physical ability, when more strenuous roles became unfit for disabled workers, they could often continue to work in an sector that was less physically taxing, such as managing the underground railways which transported coal through the mines. The presence of disabled workers in coal mines and other industries during the Industrial Revolution challenges the popularly held belief that disabled people are incapable of working, and unveiling this history allows us to give due credit to disabled workers who contributed to Britain’s incredible economic growth in this period.   

In instances of severe injury, families with disabled members who could no longer work relied on welfare. The basis of Britain’s welfare system was the Poor Law––a regionally-based welfare system––which would later serve as the foundation upon which disabled activists fought for government relief. The Poor Law was the primary means through which British citizens could obtain outrelief, which is economic assistance that does not require institutionalization. While comparatively more generous than welfare systems in other parts of Europe, the Old Poor Law of 1795-1834 was limited in scope, attending solely to elder populations, widows, children, those suffering from illness, the physically disabled, and the unemployed. In 1834, the British government passed a Poor Law Amendment Act, resulting in the decreased availability of outrelief for the working class. Due to a desire among the upper and middle classes to reduce the cost of looking after the poor, the Poor Law Amendment Act pushed impoverished people to live in workhouses, where individuals performed physically intensive labor and faced harsh living conditions. The amendment was an early signal of changing attitudes among the British public with regards to poverty and the role of government in the mid 19th-century. Frustrated by the fact that their tax payments went to the hands of the poor, the British bourgeoisie began to purport the notion that working class people could afford to survive on savings alone and simply abused the generous welfare system. Political campaigns––namely the Crusade Against Outrelief––founded on this belief led to the increased popularity of charity and self-help in place of government assistance. The Crusade Against Outrelief emerged in the 1870s and consisted of Britain’s Local Government Board and Charity Organisation Society. Together, they worked to spread anti-welfare propaganda through widely disseminated circulars. The efficacy of the Crusade significantly reduced the reach of the Poor Law, as the number of people receiving government welfare fell by 33% from 1871-1881. The lack of government support pushed working-class laborers to form mutual aid networks through membership-only friendly societies and trade unions, which saw a massive rise in popularity in the latter half of the 19th century. Members of these societies had to pay regular fees, which were pooled together to serve as insurance if someone faced sudden job loss. Still, these efforts could not entirely replace the necessity of government assistance, as only skilled workers could afford to save and pay for membership in friendly societies.  

It was not until the leadup to WWI that attitudes towards the working class began to shift. People no longer cited idleness as the leading cause of unemployment, but rather changes in the economy out of any individual’s control. These changing ideologies led to the passage of a series of Liberal Welfare Reforms––namely the Old Age Pension Act of 1908 and the National Insurance Act of 1911––which served as the groundwork for Britain’s modern-day welfare system. Notably, the National Insurance Act of 1911 was a federally funded insurance program which provided British citizens with aid in instances of income shock, alleviating people’s dependence on the Poor Law alone for financial assistance.   

During World War II, Britain established its welfare state following the publication of The Beveridge Report, a government report written by William Beveridge in 1942. In his report, Beveridge advocated for a more expansive national insurance scheme, a minimum wage, social security, and more. Unlike the Poor Law, the Beveridge report supported an insurance plan that would cover all British citizens. After rigorous debates over the Beveridge report, the government began to construct a welfare state over the course of the mid 1940s––a process which culminated in the adoption of the National Assistance Act of 1948, which rendered the Poor Law obsolete. The act centralized welfare in the UK such that government assistance was no longer paid for by local county governments, but the state government.  

With the end of the Poor Law, the establishment of Britain’s welfare state in the post WWII era was the primary form of government assistance for disabled people in the late 20th century. The Independent Living Movement emerged in the UK in the late 1970s as a reaction to welfare policy for disabled people that they felt did not suit their needs or desires. Encouraging institutionalization and medicalization, the existing welfare system did not recognize disabled peoples’ right to self determination. The Independent Living Movement actually began in the United States, when Ed Roberts helps to create the first Center for Independent Living in 1972, as part of a broader disability rights movement that took root in the 1960s. These centers allowed disabled people to live in their own accessible homes with personal care assistants rather than in institutions.  

The disability rights movement took inspiration from other social movements of the time, including the Black civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the women’s movement. As such, the American disability rights movement is primarily oriented around issues of discrimination, whereas disability rights advocates abroad (such as in the UK) have focused more heavily on obtaining welfare benefits for disabled people. The Independent Living Movement can be understood as simultaneously a product of disability rights organizing, and a site for the development of a politically oriented collective disabled consciousness that further strengthened the disability rights movement. Disabled activists in late 1970s Britain took inspiration from the Independent Living Movement in the United States, adapting it to fit Britain’s existing welfare system. An early step was the formation of the Independent Living Fund, which was introduced by the Department of Social Security in 1988. The Independent Living Fund allowed disabled people to exercise greater economic independence through a system of direct payments of money that disabled people could allocate as they saw fit. Activists argued that these payments, aptly named Direct Payment schemes, provided more comprehensive and satisfactory care and were more economically efficient than government services for disabled people. The passage of a Direct Payments Act in 1996 advanced the Independent Living Movement by allowing disabled people to choose how their government relief was best spent to suit their lives. 

The Independent Living Movement is ongoing in the UK, and while activists have made incredible progress policy-wise, they continue to struggle to obtain funding and further the widespread implementation of Direct Payments. Expanding the reach of Direct Payments continues to be a priority for disability rights activists in the UK today.  


Blackie, Daniel, ‘Disability and Work During the Industrial Revolution in Britain’, in Michael Rembis, Catherine Kudlick, and Kim E. Nielsen (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Disability History, Oxford Handbooks (2018; online edn, Oxford Academic, 10 July 2018),  

Blandy, Doug. “Conceptions of Disability: Toward a Sociopolitical Orientation to Disability for Art Education.” Studies in Art Education 32, no. 3 (1991): 131–44.  

Boyer, George R. The Winding Road to the Welfare State: Economic Insecurity and Social Welfare Policy in Britain. Princeton University Press, 2019.  

Doyle, Brian. “Disabled Workers’ Rights, the Disability Discrimination Act and the UN Standard Rules.” The Industrial Law Journal 25, no. 1 (1996): 1–14.  

Evans, John.”The Independent Living Movement in the UK.” In the forthcoming English version of: Alonso, J. Vidal Garcia. “El Movimiento de Vida Independiente, Experiencias Internacionales.” (“The Independent Living Movement: International Experiences.”) Madrid: Fundación Luis Vives, 2003.  

Kelly, Kim. “The Disabled Workers.” In Fight Like Hell : The Untold History of American Labor. New York: Atria Books, 2022. Accessed June 2, 2023. ProQuest Ebook Central. 212-233. 

Scotch, Richard K. “Politics and Policy in the History of the Disability Rights Movement.” The Milbank Quarterly 67 (1989): 380–400.  

Smith, Rogers M., and Mary L. Dudziak. Civil Disabilities: Citizenship, Membership, and Belonging. Edited by Nancy J. Hirschmann and Beth Linker. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.  

“1834 Poor Law.” The National Archives, The National Archives. 14 Mar. 2023.,for%20several%20hours%20each%20day.   


Lea Wong is a junior at Pomona, majoring in History with a thematic concentration in Decolonization. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Lea is currently studying abroad for the 2023-4 academic year at Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford, where she is taking tutorials in History and History of Art. Outside of school, her interests include art, volleyball, and social justice.

Student Contributions

The Development of Disability Policies in South Korea 1950s-2000s  

Picture source: Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI)

In 1952, the Korean Association for the Welfare of the Disabled was established to provide rehabilitation services and welfare. After the Korean War, most disabled folks received care at home from relatives (usually women) following the ethics of Confucian society, which often designated mothers as caretakers while stressing the importance of self-reliance within families without relying on support from the government. Those with disabilities received much contempt from society, influenced by postcolonial pursuits of economic growth and militarism that required able bodies. Early activism (pre-1980) focused on institutional mistreatments, welfare benefits, access to education and public transit, and signing petitions or providing services and care to disabled folks. It was less about recognizing lack of care or disability resources as a human rights issue and followed the “medical model of disability”, which viewed disabilities as a medical issue or a problem to be fixed rather than a social issue to be addressed through systemic change.

The authoritarian regimes of the 1970s and 80s under Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan hampered the success of disability rights groups, but there were still developments in activism for the disabled. Park Chung Hee’s rule in particular focused on the elimination of poverty but prioritized economic development over societal needs like social welfare, advocating for “development first and distribution later”. He did however enact several social insurance programs to gain the support of groups such as civil servants, soldiers, and the disabled for the purpose of industrialization and regime legitimacy.

In 1972 a petition was passed to exempt disabled secondary school applicants from physical fitness tests. In the early 1980s, a disabled student and four bar exam passers also sued for university admission and appointment as judges, as they were rejected due to their disabilities. A major expansion of the movement took place in 1987-8, as activists boycotted the Seoul Olympics and Paralympics to demand legislation for welfare and employment benefits for disabled folks. Night schools called yahak, which provided GED and vocational education to those with disabilities were also established, and promoted a meeting place for connection and solidarity among disabled folks.

It is notable that Chun Doo Hwan, a military dictator who ruled 1980-88, improved state support for disabled people, which aligned with his goals of making South Korea an advanced, modern state with a welfare system. Although the idea of Korean social welfare infrastructure emerged after WWII and stemmed from the American postwar occupation when US military established provincial bureaus of health and welfare and a childcare law, the Korean welfare state did not conceptually exist until Chun’s regime called its policy ‘construction of a welfare society’ to legitimize its rule. The Korean Academy of Social Work’s name change to the Korean Academy of Social Welfare in 1985 indicated a recognition of the need for social welfare as a societal system rather than a series of decentralized emergency service systems.

The Physical and Mental Disability Welfare Law was established in 1981, but was not strongly implemented. This particular law was revised several times, first in 1989 to the Act on Welfare of Persons with Disability, then again in 2000. When it was first enacted, the law only recognized 5 types of disorders that were classified as disabilities: physical, visual, hearing, speech and language, and intellectual disabilities. In 2000, brain lesions, psychiatric disorders, kidney disease, heart disease, and developmental disorders were added, and currently the law additionally recognizes respiratory disorders, liver disease, facial disfigurement, intestinal and urinary stoma, and epilepsy to make a total of 15 disorders.

Disability advocacy increased in the 1990s after the democratic elections in 1987. Following the overthrow of military dictator Chun Doo Hwan, a new constitution (Sixth Republic’s Constitution of 1987) was established that contained civil rights protections for disabled people under Articles 10 and 11. The 1990s saw reformations of the Chun Doo Hwan law (as stated above) and the implementation of a new law promoting employment for disabled persons. The new era also saw a change in the philosophy of disability activism, where dangsaja, or the “affected parties” were recognized as being more important in activism than professionals or non-disabled allies. An increasing number of Koreans with disabilities engaged in self advocacy, demonstrating the shift from others dismantling obstacles to disabled peoples’ full participation in the movement. 

The establishment of groups such as the Federation of Disabled Youth and DPI-Korea in late 1980s provided increased organizing capacity. They also founded Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination. More moderate groups established in the 1990s included: Korea Federation of Organizations of the Disabled, Korea Differently Abled Federation.

Another major turning point for disability activism took place in the 2000s under the “right to mobility” or idong gwon movement, which was led largely by college students. It gained traction after a fatal accident in 2001, in which a woman died after falling off of a wheelchair lift in Oido Station. It was at this point that the disability rights movement was fully recognized as a human rights issue. Activists became bolder: they occupied buses and railroad tracks, a strategy that activists still use to draw attention to disability rights. In 2002, Solidarity was able to secure the Seoul mayor’s promise that subway stations would be equipped with elevators and allied with Democratic Labor Party to push for the 2005 law. The protests succeeded in the passing of the 2005 Act on Promoting Transportation Convenience for Mobility Disadvantaged Persons (Transportation Convenience Act), which normalized low floor buses and transport services.




Hanah Park is a student at Pomona College majoring in Politics. Her academic interests include the Korean peninsula, US-ROK-Japan relations, and Sino-Korea relations, as well as wartime memory, demographic crises, and cybersecurity in East Asia.

Student Contributions

Accessibility Lessons in Japan 

Accessibility Lessons in Japan 

By Alida Schefers (written in Summer 2019)  

Traveling internationally to Japan can feel like a daunting trip for anyone, let alone for wheelchair users. Before my trip to Osaka, Tokyo, and Kyoto through EnviroLab Asia in May 2019, I heard traveling with a wheelchair in Japan can be difficult. The difficulty seemed in part due to Japan’s old infrastructure and only recent implementation of ADA-type regulation. It was only in 1994 that “The Act on Buildings Accessible and Usable for the Elderly and Physically Disabled” was implemented, which requires semi-public buildings of 500+ sq. meters to provide accessible entrances, corridors, and restrooms. This was augmented in 2008 when the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Tourism introduced the new “Barrier-free” law to improve accessibility in everyday life. Its main goal was to ensure safety for the elderly, but it provides accessibility for all disabled persons. Therefore, I was happily surprised to observe some innovative ideas being implemented in Japan (some of which may be inspiration for improving US accessibility as well).   

I immediately noticed that accessibility in Japan is primarily provided by the support of official staff. For example, when boarding a train in the city, a station employee will accompany a wheelchair user to the train, lay down a ramp, and send word to the destination station to have another employee meet the rider with a ramp. Accessible train platforms (with no platform height gaps) would be better for independent travel, but this assistance is a great second best. The station attendants were committed and knowledgeable on how to assist a wheelchair user using public transport. The outstanding efficiency of trains and ubiquity of them in cities opens up places for many disabled people. In comparison, few taxis or car services in Japan can accommodate a wheelchair (or are more expensive), so it is very helpful that other public transportation options in the city are so accessible. However, the number of accessible taxis in Japan is increasing, from 800 in 1997 to at least 28,000 “Universal Design” taxis by 2020 due to a governmental initiative. These accessible black taxis can be hailed like regular taxis and cost the same, although not all drivers are trained in securing a wheelchair. Current accessible taxis that need to be reserved in advance (Kaigo taxis) are more expensive than regular taxis (3,000-4,000 yen per half hour, or approximately double the normal taxi rate). I also experienced personal assistance at urban stores and restaurants; for example, a staff worker carried hot ramen to my table for me. 

During my trip, I saw cities in Japan making improvements in accessibility in their planning and construction. Here are some more examples of accessible aspects of Japan. I also saw many innovations in accessibility which go beyond these measures. 


As for any traveler, but particularly for the disabled traveler, hotel facilities are important. 

I stayed at The Big-I International Communication Center for Persons with Disabilities, a facility in Osaka which functions as a hotel and a creative space. Opened in 2001, this facility was built to commemorate the UN Decade of Disabled Persons (1983-1992). It is unique in its specific goal to be a model of inclusivity and accessibility (and therefore is not representative of most buildings in Japan). Here are some notable accessible hotel features I observed:   


The Big-I has several types of “barrier-free” rooms (listed here), including one with a Hoyer lift from the bed to the bathtub. The bathrooms have space for a wheelchair to maneuver, easy sink access, grab bars, and the bathtub has a built-in seat. Most hotel bathrooms in Japan have a large drain in the tile floor. That means, if necessary, a disabled guest could shower outside of the bathtub if maneuvering into the bathtub or on the seat is too difficult. 

One of the most attractive parts of travel includes experiencing different cultural traditions, which can sometimes limit accessibility. I observed how two hotels adapted cultural customs to maintain accessibility. 

The Big-I has several types of rooms, including “Japanese-style” rooms with tatami mats, similar to a traditional Japanese room. Although Japanese custom dictates that people remove their shoes and put on slippers before going on the tatami mats (for cleanliness and to impede wear and tear), the hotel allows a wheelchair user to go on the mats, which the hotel will wash again after their stay. The temples and shrines I visited also had accessible ramps and allowed wheelchairs onto the tatami mats. 

Sleeping on futons placed on tatami mats is a beloved Japanese tradition, but it may be difficult for disabled guests to lower themselves to the futon and then stand back up again. Although the Big-I did not have this, the ATC Ageless Center in Osaka displayed the Francebed’s Floor-bed, which can be electronically lowered to the floor to simulate a futon, and then raised again to allow the guest to get up easily. 

Francebed’s Floor-bed, as exhibited in the Ageless Center in the Asia-Pacific Trade Center in Osaka, Japan. (English pamphlet for the Ageless Center is here.) 

In Kyoto, a barrier-free room at the Vessel Hotel Campana Kyoto Gojo incorporated the traditional design of a genkan. A genkan is an area which separates the interior from the exterior (typically) using a step up. At this hotel, it is incorporated in a visual, more symbolic, and accessible way. They used a metal divide and different types of flooring material, to represent the genkan. Finally, I noticed the slippers were placed in the doorway path (obstructing the path for wheelchair users). However, this placement may be useful for elderly patrons who may have a hard time turning to put on slippers put to the side. 

A genkan of a Japanese residence with a step up An accessible genkan-style entrance in the Kyoto hotel 

Auditorium/Performance Space 

The Big-I has a multi-purpose hall/auditorium as part of its recreational space. In contrast to other performance spaces I have been to in the US, this hall allows a number of customized seating layouts, including accommodating a large number of wheelchairs simultaneously. (The image below shows a layout in which all the front seats are wheelchair-accessible.) 

In comparison, the typical US performance space has only a limited number of wheelchair-accessible spaces (usually 2-4) and are fixed. This makes going to events difficult for disabled patrons. In my experience, often all accessible seats are sold out even when numerous regular seating tickets are still available. If they hope to attend an event, disabled patrons need to be one of the first buyers. Also, many auditoriums do not have accessible seating near front or other preferred locations. The Big-I facility addresses these obstacles.  

Fire Escapes 

For me, the most impressive feature of the Big-I was the unique fire escape. From my experience in the US, hotels will occasionally place their accessible room(s) on the ground floor so the guest can evacuate quickly and/or independently in an emergency. However, more often than not the accessible rooms are on higher floors. This means the disabled guest must go to the closest stairway/area of refuge, call emergency services themselves to report their location, and then simply wait there until emergency personnel arrive. Once emergency personnel arrive, the disabled guest must rely on them to help either carry/assist them down manually or with the aid of a special evacuation chair. 

However, at the Big-I hotel, every room on the upper floors has a sliding glass door that can be opened to a shared balcony in an emergency. This balcony leads to either 1) a series of ramps that go directly down to the ground or 2) stairs. The diagrams on the balcony floor show which direction guests should exit. In stark contrast to other hotels, this allows all guests, even those with no or severely limited walking ability, to escape from all floors independently and in a timely matter. It certainly gives disabled guests peace of mind. 

Hotel addresses: 

Big-I (国際障害者交流センタービッグ・アイ) 

1-8-1 Chayamadai, Minami-ku, Sakai-city, Osaka, 590 – 0115 

TEL +81 72-290-0900 FAX +81 72-290-0920 

Vessel Hotel Campana Kyoto Gojo 

498 Shimonjyuji- cho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto Prefecture 600-8180 

TEL: +81 75-353-1000 FAX: +81 75-353-1001 

Disability Discounts 

Japan offers disability discounts for public transportation, attractions, and public facilities. The Japanese disability ID card (shogaisha techo) entitles the bearer to reduced fees. For example, the Big-I hotel offers a 20% reduction in room price for a disabled guest and the Nara Park Tōdai-ji temple reduces the entrance fee of ¥600 by 50%. Unfortunately, this ID is not available for foreign visitors, although some venues extend the discount to a visibly disabled person. 

Public Restrooms 

In the main cities, I found accessible bathrooms in most bigger buildings: large department stores, train stations (including on the Shinkansen “bullet train” itself), and popular tourist destinations. There is even a Check A Toilet phone app which shows the nearest accessible toilet in your area (in English).  

In sum, whereas Japan has only relatively recently taken up the mission of accessibility, it seems to be addressing the need earnestly and is allocating significant resources towards making up for lost time, at least in major metropolitan areas. I saw several creative and successful solutions.  

As we in the US continue to advocate for more and better accessibility, I believe we can also look to Japan for innovative solutions to potentially adapt.  


Alida Schefers was a ’22 linguistics major at Pomona College and has studied Japanese, Korean, and German. She travelled to Japan as a fellow in the “Accessibility in Japan” lab with the EnviroLab Asia Program, which encourages interdisciplinary study of the environment and sustainability in East and Southeast Asia, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.