Critics doubt sincerity of Seoul Mayor’s ‘wheelchair experience’ pledge

By Claire Lee
  • Published : Sept 3, 2018 - 18:35
  • Updated : Sept 3, 2018 - 18:43

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s latest pledge -- to spend a day in a wheelchair to experience the difficulties disabled people face in using public transportation -- is raising eyebrows among the people with disabilities in Seoul.

Park’s latest pledge announced on Sunday is the mayor’s second attempt to “understand” the lives of socially vulnerable, following a monthlong stay in a rooftop apartment in an impoverished Seoul neighborhood.  Even his first attempt was criticized by some, who viewed Park’s move as political exploitation of the plight of the poor.

Disabled citizens have criticized Park’s plan for a “wheelchair experience,” saying that the mayor did not do much when a disabled man was killed in a stair lift accident at Seoul Metro’s Singil Station last year. The victim, surnamed Han, took the lift at the station as he was trying to transfer from Metro line. 1 to 5, but fell from device and died from the injury.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon (left)`s recent effort to understand the lives of the most vulnerable, by living in a rooftop dwelling (pictured) in Seoul`s impoverished neighborhood for a month, was seen by some as political exploitation of the plight of the poor. (Yonhap)

Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination, a disability rights group, stressed that Park has yet to implement a 2015 plan to install elevators in 37 Seoul subway stations by 2022. The plan was part of the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s 2015 declaration to provide a more accessible public transportation system for the disabled.

“We believe that if these promised measures were implemented, as pledged by the Seoul Metropolitan Government under Park’s leadership, the tragedy that took place last year at Singil Station could have been prevented,” Cho Hyun-soo, a disability rights activist, told The Korea Herald.

Han was not the first Korean with disabilities who died from a stair lift accident at Seoul Metro stations. At least four people with disabilities have been killed in similar accidents in the Seoul Captial Area since 2001, at Seoul Metro stations including Oido Station, Balsan Station and Hwaseo Station.

“I just want to raise a point that this problem, which involved deaths, has been around for a long time, since the early 2000s,” Cho continued. “And Mayor Park had enough time to tackle it, if he wanted to, since he became the mayor in 2011. For him to spend a day on a wheelchair in such a public way at this point, after a number of lives have already been lost, makes one question his motives.”

Moon Ae-rin, an activist with disabilities, said she wants to see the Seoul Metro and Seoul Metropolitan Government’s official apology for last year’s tragedy before Mayor Park proceeds with his “wheelchair experience.”

“It’s disheartening to see that the mayor somehow thinks that he has to experience our hardships for a day himself in order to understand us. People with disabilities, who live with this reality every day, have been speaking out and sharing our experiences for years," she told The Korea Herald. 

"Why can’t he listen and take our accounts seriously instead of spending a day in a wheelchair?”
South Koreans with disabilities protest Seoul`s public transportation system, which they claim to be unsafe and non-inclusive, inside a Seoul Metro train in July (Yonhap)

Bae Bok-ju, the head of Women with Disabilities with Empathy, said she finds the idea -- an able-bodied, powerful politician going on a public wheelchair challenge for a day -- rather uncomfortable.

“Mayor Park used to work as a human rights lawyer, and I’m sure he is aware of why his plan may be perceived as problematic by some,” she told The Korea Herald. 

“I can’t really tell the difference between Park’s plan of using a wheelchair and the political tactic of eating fish cake at local markets -- which has been used by many politicians to show that they empathize with the lives of ordinary citizens. But eating fish cake won’t help you understand much. It’s just a staging of political grandstanding.”