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Visit to The Korea Differently Abled Federation(KODAF) and interview with Mr Dongbeom Kim

On Friday, December 6, our Foreign Students World Reporters team conducted our final interview for 2019. The place we visited provided us with an interesting point of view on life in Korea - that of the differently-abled persons. The Korea Differently Abled Federation(KODAF) actually represents a total of thirty different Disabled Persons Organizations (DPOs) as a single union and on the day of our visit we even had the opportunity to briefly attend their annual end-of-the-year debate meeting. We were warmly greeted by KODAF's secretary general, Mr Dongbeom Kim, who despite his busy schedule, took the time to have lunch with us and get to know each of our members personally.

After pleasant lunch with Mr Kim, during which we discussed various topics from culture to diplomatic relations, we conducted a short interview with him about their activities, values and goals. On our question regarding the hardest challenges that the differently-abled face in terms of integration in the Korean society, Mr Kim briefly touched the problem of discrimination which seems to be quite severe. In his opinion, "Compared to Europe and other areas, where people have been adjusted to different cultures and types of people for generations, Korean society is conservative and does not easily accept such differences. Having similar appearance, Koreans have been identifying themselves as representatives of the same ethnicity for ages. Only recently, the term “multicultural society” is used increasingly due to the emerging cases of mixed-raced marriages. Korean society is showing some effort to accept diversity, yet Koreans still have a long way to go." This mindset seems to be affecting people with disabilities as well and Korea is trying to cope with that issue by imposing anti-discriminatory laws and fines. According to Mr Kim, Korea has issued a law against discrimination, partially related to discrimination against the differently-abled. For example, a university is a subject to fine if it does not admit a student with disabilities due to lack of accessibility access. Similarly, a company can be fined if it expresses any kind of discrimination against a differently-abled job applicant. There is an obligatory hiring quota for the differently-abled (at least 3% of the total employees of a minimum 50-employyee business), and a fine for companies that do not comply with that law. Samsung Electronics is no exception, paying a fine of 10 billion won.

Regarding the values of KODAF, Mr Kim emphasized the importance of human rights and, namely, an integrated society that has equal rights for everyone. However, the organization is faced with two main obstacles when it comes to the achievement of those goals. From a material point of view, people with disabilities are often prevented from doing various activities, such as using public transportation. It was not until recently that accessibility access devices were installed in the subway. Previously, the differently-abled could not ride buses or even enter certain buildings due to the lack of suitable mobility equipment. Even the pavement of the sidewalks was not upgraded with the prominent tiles for the blind. The other obstacle is the exclusion of the persons with disabilities from various study and job opportunities. High-profiled universities like Seoul University should allow students with disabilities to compete with the rest as equals.

Our team was also curious about KODAF’s cooperation with international organizations, which Mr Dongbeom Kim explained as follows: "The UN has issued the "Charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities” (CPID), which has already been ratified in a number of countries around the world. The representative stakeholders from those countries hold an annual meeting to discuss their achievements and further challenges. Simultaneously, NGOs play an important role in the UN affairs, and KODAF is not an exception. If our NGO was not actively participating, the government officials would have been able to attend international meetings, claiming that the country is doing excellently, which is not always true. We need to propel the government, while cooperating with them for better results related to the rights of the differently-abled." He also shared information about the activities KODAF organizes for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities such as a blind painters exhibition held in the UN Headquarters in 2017. KODAF was also involved in various events during the Paralympics last year, even hoping for a joint activity with North Korea, but unfortunately, the other party was difficult to approach. The organization attended both the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as a seminar about the issues of persons with disabilities such as ways to ease their mobility.

Considering that we represent the foreign student body, we could not overlook the educational aspect of the matter as well. Mr Kim explained that KODAF's priority is career path education. "Differently-abled students usually spend their pre-university years with the idea that they are no different than their healthy counterparts, they just have certain mobility issues. However, the situation changes the moment they try to start a career. While their healthy counterparts are employed easily, the conditions might differ for people with disabilities. They start to realize that they are discriminated against and often lose hope for finding a job in their desired field. That is why, we need to help young students work on their dreams and instruct them how to achieve them. Also, people with disabilities often face prejudice in the society, and they need to be prepared for dealing with that. For example, they can easily hear words like: “How are you supposed to work in a wheelchair?”, so they need to know how to answer in a positive manner. We support such students by providing them with self-development tips. We are also working as a connecting bridge between various companies and excellent students with disabilities, aiming to provide scholarships. Materially speaking, our organization supports newly-admitted university students with laptops as well as with advanced and comfortable, battery-operated wheelchairs in order to extend the range of activities they can perform. Moreover, we organize one-to-one pairing between differently-abled and healthy students, in order to encourage them to become friends. Expert professors also provide indirect mentoring regarding possible academic and study paths."

With mutual efforts, the situation seems to have improved in comparison with the past, when up to 70% of the students with disabilities used to go to primary school, and even less to middle school. However, nowadays there is still a lesser percentage of people with disabilities involved in education, compared to that of healthy students. For big cities like Seoul, mobility is relatively easier. However, it is much harder in some villages, where students need to pass water canals and mountains to go to school. In the past, mothers used to carry their differently-abled children on their backs for 2-3 km to school and back. Nowadays, it is much better, with school buses and other improvements. People with disabilities can go up to Master’s and Ph.D. degrees if they want, with some even becoming professors. However, when describing the educational circumstances concerning the differently-abled students in Korea, Mr Kim did not forget to mention that education levels are high in Korea, but the field is mostly exam-oriented. Parents try to make their kids keep up with the high standards by enrolling them in private institutions which has affected the quality of the public education in a negative way. Korea has been doing plenty of efforts to solve this issue, one of which is the so-called "blind interview" policy, where the interviewer does not know about the university background of the interviewee, thus preventing certain biases. In relation to that problem, Mr Kim used the popular drama Sky Castle, which exposes the educational reality, as an example.

When asked about what the most satisfying aspect of working in KODAF is, Mr Dongbeom Kim revealed that he has been working in this field for 30 years, without him or any family member of his being differently-abled: "Sometimes we go on a path that we did not choose. Strangely, I started to feel interested and attached as I continued working in this area. I began realizing the issues people with disabilities are faced with in our society. Witnessing the successful improvements that we have achieved until now, I grow more and more excited to keep working towards changing the country for the better. Fighting for disability rights is an ongoing process, and we keep doing it because of the feeling of accomplishment after each positive result. Our environment and awareness have changed a lot in favor of the comfort of the persons with disabilities. We can measure the level of human rights and human welfare in a country by the way it treats its differently-abled population. Lastly, I hope you can experience participating in disability-related activities while you are in Korea!"

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