Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Day 1, Seoul: Women with Disabilities Empathy

Bridget and I woke up around 7:30 this morning, with our bodies still a bit confused as to what time zone we were in. After showering and dressing, the first order of the day was to find breakfast---which ended up being from a convenience store down the street. No, it wasn't accessible, which reminds me, here is the front of our hotel, the Dormy in Seoul:

The front of our hotel, the Dormy In Seoul

The Dormy is more of a business residence hotel, so we've ended up with things like a washing machine and a kitchenette. It is in the Gangnam area of Seoul. Here is a picture of the view from one of the upper floors of the Dormy, looking down on the city below:

The view of crowded buildings from the Dormy highrise

As you can see, the buildings are really crammed close together. Seoul is definitely a city of apartment buildings, a sign of the fact that in South Korea, there is limited space for living due to mountains and a large population for the area. You can see mountains in the far background of the picture.

As proof that I really am here, here is a photo Bridget took of me outside the hotel:

Amber smiles outside on the sidewalk in front of the hotel

There is a bus in the background. I was eyeballing the buses to check for lifts, but it turns out that in Seoul, a) the vast majority of buses don't have lifts, plus they don't come that often and b) the subway system is by far the preferred means of travel, and it is accessible as well---but activists had to take significant action to make that happen. Some of the activists in the US will have seen the 2002 footage of South Korean disability rights activists tying themselves to the train tracks to fight for access. Looks like that got the attention of the authorities...American readers, imagine tying yourselves to the tracks of the Chicago El or the New York subway. Gutsy move, eh?

Today's main activity was visiting Women with Disabilities Empathy, which was set up in 1998. It has five main divisions: the Human Rights Center, the Sexual Violence Center for Women with Disabilities, the Soom Independent Living Center for Women with Disabilities, the Dancing Waist Drama and Performance Group and the Dancing Bakery (which is a bakery where women with and without disabilities work to create organic products, several of which are currently stuffing my backpack).

Here is a group photo of staff and supporters at WDE, along with Bridget, Sunghee, Kyunghee and I (more about Sunghee and Kyunghee below):

The staff and members of Women with Disabilities Empathy, plus Amber, Bridget, Sunghee and Kyunghee

At 11, Bridget and I met up with the director of WDE's Sexual Violence Center, Bogjoo Bae, along with ally and translator (and filmmaking teacher!) Sunghee Hong and Korean Sign Language/ASL interpreter Kyunghee Ko. Bogjoo and Sunghee have been responsible for coordinating my women with disabilities-related business in Seoul, for which I am very grateful. After reviewing the schedule for the next several days, we discussed some of the basics of women with disabilities activism in South Korea.

Bogjoo, who is in the white shirt and seated crosslegged on the floor in the photo above, explained that in South Korea, the current picture of women's disability rights organizations first grew out of individual activism. There are about six major women's disability rights groups. Three are Seoul-only: Women with Disabilities Empathy, Women with Disabilities Arts and Culture Network and the Disabled Women's Network. Three cover all of South Korea: Korean Deaf Women's Association, Blind Women's Association and Fabulous Women of Tomorrow.

A notable point regarding several of these organizations is that they unite with groups representing other oppressed people and fight not only for the rights of people with disabilities, but for the rights of, for example, trans people and LGBTQ people. WDE and about nine other groups work together in a coalition called Anti-Discrimination Action (Bogjoo notes that this coalition is led by younger women activists).

One of the goals of the coalition for the last 6 years has been to legislate the social discrimination of people with disabilities. The government has an agenda for social discrimination legislation, but it has not been inclusive of groups such as those with psychiatric disabilities, those who are LGBTQ and so on. The coalition finally succeeded in passing a bill to cover these points and it has been effective as of April. WDE is working on a brochure to educate the public about this new law.

I asked about whether South Korea has laws that include disability as a class protected from hate crimes. Answer-not at this time. However, it is illegal to portray people with disabilities negatively in advertising.

Incidentally, Bogjoo and at least two other people we met today are connected with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK). Bogjoo is an advisor to the commission.

After this conversation, we went for a very nice lunch at a Korean restaurant, and then it was off to the WDE offices. Bogjoo took us on a tour, and then staff and supporters of WDE gathered with us for a group talk to teach me about WDE and allow me to have a conversation with them. I was reminded very strongly of our Empowered Fe Fes! The staff of WDE made a very lovely "Welcome Amber" sign that you can see behind me in the group photo above. Yes, it is in Korean, but they made additions in English too. :)

First, we had a powerpoint presentation about WDE's history, since it is celebrating 10 years this year. They have a seriously cool list of activities, but here are a few that impressed me most:

---since 2001, an annual human rights camp for women with disabilities
---regular performances from the Dancing Waist
---coalition building with, for example, National Solidarity of Sexual Violence Centers and Shelters and Disability Discrimination Act Solidarity
---making of "Turtle Sisters," a documentary about women with disabilities

We then had a question and answer session covering topics such as community, vision and leadership development. Some of the women were familiar with ADAPT. It's impossible to describe every little thing that happened, but some of the points that women made that struck me most were:

---women with disabilities are in a process of freeing ourselves from pity and condescension
---WDE staff work on an equal basis with each other; no hierarchy
---having those around you cut your hair off because they assume you cannot care for yourself; having your hair chopped off is a sign of the oppression of women with disabilities
---the absolute, non-negotiable need for protest/resistance in order to free women with disabilities
---the need to bring in younger leaders and empower them to be activist (girls under twenty are usually kept at home by their parents so it is hard to do outreach with this group)
---WDE folks' awareness of themselves as diverse and accepting of one another
---awareness of lack of employment as a significant barrier to personal freedom

The discussion was much longer than this, so those are the short notes, especially since at the moment I am still suffering jet lag! After the discussion, WDE hosted a very nice dinner for the group, and Bogjoo went above and beyond by giving Bridget and I a ride back to the hotel. Here is a picture of Bridget showing me her sushi at dinner while everyone is busy eating:

While eating with WDE, Bridget shows me a piece of Korean sushi

WDE also gave me a nice big stack of their publications (in Korean, mostly). Although I can't read Hangul, I can see that the pictures address independent living and sexual education, two vitally important topics for women with disabilities around the world.

There was one deaf woman at the gathering, who makes her living as a seamstress. She and I had a talk to compare experiences. I am always asked how it is that I can speak clearly but am deaf. All I can say about that is, I do wear hearing aids which help me get auditory clues, and when my hearing loss was discovered at age 3, I was already talking. And I went to mainstream schools. So my answer for talking clearly---that's pretty much it, but it is something I address over and over again with a lot of people I meet.

I was very impressed with WDE as a center with a real community building feel, as opposed to an office where people work because they are paid to. I think it was clear that individuals were recognized and that people just have a lot of fun together. Nothing builds a movement like friends! I think everyone we saw today was also very passionate and very engaged---like some of the people I know back home. ;) I think WDE deserves as much financial and organizational support as it can get, because it is trying to achieve change in a collaborative way, and as many of us know, getting along with each other can be some of the hardest work of all.

Many thanks to WDE for a wonderful visit today! I hope that all of our South Korean sisters we met today are someday able to meet the rest of their US sisters, just for the sake of sisterhood.

For more information about the development of women's disability rights in different countries, check out Laura Hershey's 2003 article here.


PhilosopherCrip said...

There are a lot of things that seem interesting/important about this post, but the thing I picked up on most is the law about negative portrayals of PWDs in advertising. Does this include LPs? Is there a similar history of using LPs as an advertising gimmick in S Korea? I can't imagine what Christmas or St Patrick's Day would be like without elves and leprechauns... good stuff and i look forward to talking to you about this and many other things!!!

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