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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.

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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.

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