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[Herald Interview] Lawmaker calls for awareness for disabled

Rep. Kim Ye-ji asks next president to listen more and cater to needs

Rep. Kim Ye-ji of the main opposition People Power Party poses for a photo last week during an interview with The Korea Herald. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
Rep. Kim Ye-ji of the main opposition People Power Party poses for a photo last week during an interview with The Korea Herald. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
The next president should improve social awareness and welfare for the disabled, says Rep. Kim Ye-ji, South Korea's first visually-impaired woman to hold a parliamentary seat.

The visually-impaired pianist-turned-politician of the main opposition People Power Party said in an interview with The Korea Herald that she asks whoever becomes the next president to raise awareness of disabled people and to ensure their presence and needs are recognized by others.

She demands the next president to help Koreans learn that disabled people are all around them and that they have their own unique sets of needs.

"It's the same as feeling oddly unfamiliar with family members if you have not seen them for long, in my opinion," Kim said.

"Disabled people don’t have to live among themselves, and we all have to try to live together in a unified space, so it is important to increase the exposure of disabled people to others in the first place."

Having people learn that disabled people are near them will be the first step in making a diverse and inclusive country, as increased awareness will allow disabled people to better share with others what kinds of changes in welfare policies are needed.

As of late last year, disabled people accounted for 5.1 percent -- 2.63 million people -- of South Korea’s population, up 14,000 from a year earlier. Close to half of disabled people in the country are those with physical disabilities.

In line with her call, Kim proposes making a president-led special commission on disabled people that will aid in providing guidance for the president and taking part in administrative moves towards welfare programs for the disabled population

"These candidates likely have not worked for long with disabled people and probably do not know much about what they need and what they yearn for," Kim said. "And it will be the job of the commission to do what I do now as a member of the legislative branch, except it’s for the president."

Since winning the legislative seat as a proportional representative in April 2020, Kim has drafted 106 bills and is on course to prepare three more by the end of this year. She also spent her work hours participating in events and speaking on behalf of disabled people.

Disabled people in South Korea have seen some improvements in welfare systems over the years, like removing the long-contested rating system that graded applicants solely on medical criteria, but Kim says a long road is still ahead for South Korea if it truly wants to welcome disabled people as valued members of society.

"Even a new system in place could be a waste in some ways if we are not ready to accommodate the individual needs of disabled people depending on their unique circumstances," Kim said. "The trend is catering to individual needs, not trying to fit everyone inside a system."

At the moment, the government divides the level of basic pension and support for disabled individuals based on two severity levels of their disabilities. The budget set aside for support are provided to disabled people as bundled packages without ways to modify them for specific needs, she added.

Kim asks South Korea to model itself after the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia in implementing personal budgets, which ensures that people with disabilities have greater control over the provision of their support and services to be provided.

"We are essentially moving in the direction of how the budget is set, which is not an efficient way to provide welfare," Kim emphasized. "We shouldn’t be providing a bulk of services because someone has a severe disability; rather, we should be worrying about what kinds of services this particular person needs."

Kim said her vision is largely included in what Yoon Suk-yeol, presidential nominee of the People Power Party, will present as a campaign promise possibly in January. She is also involved in preparing campaign events for Yoon targeted at winning votes from the disabled population in the coming months.

"It is important that he expresses interest and prepares to embrace everything with an open mind as a presidential candidate," she said. "I do believe he can go in the right direction if provided with the right assistance from party officials and close aides."

In carrying out her part, Kim asked the media to play an exemplary role like textbooks in guiding readers, as many will first come across the reality of disabled people from reading news stories and that first impression will undoubtedly guide their attitudes about those with disabilities.

"While the internet is inundated with stories on politics, economy and social affairs every day, only a few each day focuses on the lives of people with disabilities, and in essence they serve as textbooks for people who rarely come across disabled people in their lives," she added.

"I wish that media outlets will be more considerate in the vocabulary and the tone they use in portraying these issues on top of giving more attention to people with disabilities."

By Ko Jun-tae (