Rep. Kim Yea-ji of People Power Party (center, holding a microphone) speaks to activists and reporters during Monday’s protest at Gyeongbokgung Station. She was accompanied by her guide dog, Joy. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Activists and lawmakers on Monday protested People Power Party chief Lee Jun-seok’s online attacks of a disability advocacy group’s protests for speeding up barrier-free initiatives in South Korea’s public transit system.
Beginning Friday, Lee published a series of nine Facebook posts targeting Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination, an disability rights advocacy group whose members have been protesting for improved accessibility in Seoul subways in recent months.
He argued that the protest, which involves wheelchair users taking the subway during rush hour, was “violating the rights of non-disabled passengers” by causing delays in service.
“I ask that the Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination cease its protest that is holding the people of Seoul hostage. If not, I will visit the site of the illegal protest in person, and see to it that this stops,” the soon-to-be ruling party chairman wrote Friday.
He then said if the group stops the protest “for a reasonable period of time without any conditions,” he would meet with them in the presence of the press. He added that the disability activist group should “abandon their self-righteousness” and “let go of their headstrong ways.”
Following Lee’s social media comments over the weekend, People Power Party Rep. Kim Yea-ji, the country’s first visually impaired lawmaker, joined the protest Monday morning at Gyeongbokgung Station and apologized on his behalf.
“As a politician I feel responsible for the display of lack of empathy and inappropriate language, and I apologize on behalf of my colleagues. I’m truly sorry,” she said. “And as a person with a visual impairment, I thank you for your courage in standing up to the discrimination and fighting for the rights of people with disabilities.”
Justice Party Rep. Jang Hye-yeong, who also attended the protest, said, “A lot of people have expressed their concerns about the leader of the next ruling party’s repeated disparaging of these protests.”
“The kind of democracy that Korea needs is one that clearly demonstrates such opinions belong to just one man -- that is Lee Jun-seok -- and they cannot be the official stance of a political party,” she said.
“If politicians did their job and the rights of people with disabilities to access services and facilities were protected, protests like this would not be necessary in the first place.”
Gathering at the station, dozens of disability rights activists and allies called on Lee to apologize for his remarks, which they said were “irresponsible and divisive.”
People in wheelchairs call for barrier-free access to all Seoul Metro stations inside a subway car on Monday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
On Lee’s threats of an in-person visit and possible police intervention, the protesters said they welcomed the opportunity of an encounter.
In one of the posts published Friday, Lee said that “the fight for mobility rights of the disabled should not proceed in a way that holds commuters hostage” and “if future protests continue in this manner I will make a visit myself and demand answers.”
“Such irrationality calls for an active intervention,” he said, urging the police and Seoul Metro to “take action to prevent the hostage-taking.”
Lee claimed the protest was earning the disability advocacy group a bad reputation, and that the protesters were “stalling the less busy subway lines rather than the busier ones because they fear public backlash.”
Jeong Da-woon, a member of the disability rights advocacy group, said the protest was “not about causing inconvenience to commuters.”
“But don’t you think people using wheelchairs should be able to commute without relying on the help of other people?” she posed. “We’re here because we believe that navigating public transit should not be a challenge for anyone -- for parents with strollers, for the elderly with walkers, for someone using a wheelchair.”
She said to them that it makes little sense to call off the protest on no condition, as Lee demands.
“Over countless election seasons through the years we’ve met with mayors, presidential candidates and politicians, and promises have fallen short,” she said.
In his own defense, Lee said he had already spoken with the disability advocacy group’s co-leader, Park Kyung-seok, last year not long after he was elected the party chairman.
“I told him then that our party was all for expanding low-floor buses. I even told him the direction of our policies, that disabled people in wheelchairs should have easy access to trains and buses traveling in and out of the city,” he said.
During their meeting, Lee said he had told Park about how when he was a student at Harvard, he had a friend who used a wheelchair, and that he was “more interested in mobility rights than any disabled person.”
Park says what they wanted was a word from the presidential transition committee that there will be a separate budget for the disability rights initiatives. “Without budget there is no policy, it’s as simple as that,” he said.
Lee also accused the group of staging the protest under the mayorship of the conservative party’s Oh Se-hoon, when it is Oh’s liberal predecessor and the Moon Jae-in administration that should be held accountable for failing to keep policy promises.
Park, the group’s co-leader, says this is not true. Their call for expanding accessibility at public transit systems had been ongoing through the last five administrations, with the first of such protests beginning in 2002.
To Lee’s argument that 94 percent of Seoul subway stations already had elevators, Park said they were promised by then-mayors that 100 percent of them would have one. In the last two decades, while Seoul was slow to install elevators at its subway stations, disabled subway riders have lost their lives after falling off a wheelchair stair lift.
People using wheelchairs need a ramp to get on the carriage due to a large gap between platform and subway. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Protesters using wheelchairs wait in line for an elevator inside a subway station on Monday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
While Lee said the protesters were using their wheelchairs to keep the train from departing, protesters said that is actually the car doors shutting faster than wheelchair users can get in -- one of the ways that they find subways hard to navigate.
But Lee believes this does call for improvement. “The amount of time the subway car door stays open is also restricted for non-disabled passengers,” he said.
On Monday it took the wheelchair-using protesters about 50 minutes to get to Hyehwa Station from Gyeongbokgung Station -- a route that would have taken passengers without disabilities just 14 minutes.
Most subway station elevators are big enough to fit just one person in a wheelchair so the wait is long. As some stations do not have an elevator they were forced to take a detour. They also needed the help of a station worker to place ramp for bridging the large gap between the subway car and the platform.
In a message to reporters Monday afternoon, the presidential transition committee said they would meet with the Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination members on Tuesday at Gwanghwamun Station.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Lee however said he did not plan on apologizing to the group. “Rep. Kim Yea-ji was acting in her personal capacity and I have no comment.”
On Saturday, Lee rebuffed the criticisms being directed at him after Friday’s posts as victim playing and political correctness.
“The biggest danger of minority politics is that it makes any question off limits,” he said.
“They may frame Lee Jun-seok as a misogynist or an ableist but they are unable to explain exactly what makes him a misogynist or an ableist. That’s because when a question is raised they’ve learned that the most convenient way to hit back is to resort to the ‘underdog’ discourse.”
He went on, “When political correctness intensifies people are silenced from speaking up.”
“Playing the minority or the disadvantaged card is not going to work anymore. You’re not at a disadvantage just because you are a woman, and you’re not good just because you’re disabled. The days of gaslighting through stereotyping are over,” he said.
By Kim Arin (email@example.com