Currently, parents of children with disabilities and residents in Gangseo-gu, Seoul, are sparring over the construction of a special needs school in their neighborhood. The construction of this school designed to take care of students with special needs is good news for parents who struggle to provide the proper education for their children. However, local residents refuse to have such a school in their neighborhood, where they think a traditional Korean medicine hospital is a must to be built instead. While the mounting conflict about the disabled has entered the public spotlight, The Argus looked into possible violations of human rights among physically and mentally disabled students. The Argus set out to uncover what university students with special needs in Korea go through, and identified the causes and solutions.
There are a lot of buildings that the disabled students find hard to use, not to mention some of the convenient facilities are poorly maintained. It is a great challenge for students with physical disabilities to move from building to building.
Generally, the majority of universities have ramps installed next to the stairs to ease access for the disabled students, and the elevators are usually equipped in newly-built buildings. However, when it comes to the buildings constructed a fair amount of time ago, no ramps exist. Without any help from others, students in wheelchairs cannot even enter the building. Likewise, the inconvenience made at the entrance of the building means students with disabilities are deprived of the opportunity that students without disabilities get. Classrooms can be switched if there is an additional request. Nevertheless, the fact that some of the places are off limits for disabled students remains unchanged, and they cannot navigate many places where student activities occur, as all of them are already set.
In the case of Dongguk University, if the classroom is located in a place that students with disabilities do not find easy to access, they can ask the Support Center for Disabled Students of Dongguk University for a change of classroom or reach out for help to students who do volunteer work at the support center. However, it is impossible for them to take part in club activities because the five-story building where student activities take place has no elevators. To make matters worse, buildings with no lifts are too old to mount some facilities because of deterioration of those buildings.
Not only does Dongguk University have this problem, but also HUFS has the same problem. Disabled students can get help from the HUFS Support Center for Disabled Students for overall university life, and students with wheelchairs can easily access every building since HUFS was built on a flat space. Nonetheless, there are neither elevators nor ramps in the Social Science Building and the Institute of Teaching & Learning Development or any of the other buildings on campus except for the Cyber Building, which was built in 2013. There exists one ramp out of the three entrances to the Humanities Building, but it is useless for people with physical disabilities because it does not have a lift installed on it. Some buildings cannot be accessed by disabled students at all.
“After I fell down the stairs, I needed to splint my broken leg, and walked on crutches for a month. I felt overwhelmed even at the thought of going up the stairs in the Humanities Building, Social Science Building and Institute of Teaching & Learning Development, where there are no elevators equipped. It was comparatively easy to get to the Main Building and Cyber Building, which have elevators or GlobeeDorm. for my club activities. I had trouble when I have consecutive classes in different buildings, and I felt bad when people were ill at ease about being with me in a rush hour-before class and after class. From that experience, I realized the pain students who have physical disabilities go through,” said Bok Jung-hun, Department of Russian ‘14.
School facilities are not reasonably managed by the university. Some of the braille guiding blocks have cracks in them and have not been repaired although it has been a while since they broke. Moreover, there are toilets for the disabled, but some of the doors are wide open and some have been broken for a while. Peering into the bathroom, there is a toilet stuffed with some unknown things, full with disorganized cleaning tools and a bin liner here and there, which is nearly impossible to utilize. This goes against the guidelines for the convenience of the disabled, the elderly, and pregnant women as there is not enough space for wheelchairs to pass through.
Limitations are still there in education. Many classes lack consideration for disabled students and much of the educational materials are not well arranged.
There are eight disabled students attending Dongguk University, and this is obviously small amount considering the total number of students. One of the students who has an auditory disorder said, “Professors often have no idea that a student who can barely hear is taking his/her class. Once, a professor did not put the important things on the white board, but did so on e-class, the school website, without giving me any notice.” According to HUFS Support Center for Disabled Students, there are three such students who attend HUFS, two students at the Seoul Campus and one student at the Global Campus. Information on students with disabilities is given to professors beforehand, so it is slightly easier for those students to follow the class since the professors are informed of the situation in advance.
However, there are always possibilities that professors might be unconscious of the fact that they have students who need more attention.
Kim Su-yeon, who majors in Liberal Studies at Seoul National University, is completely blind. She said, “I need some help from professors. I do not really find it tough to walk around the campus with the help of the Support Center for Disabled Students in my college, but when it comes to taking classes, there are some barriers that have not been removed yet. Some professors I met were using vague expressions like ‘this’ or ‘that,’ and it makes it hard for me to grasp the whole context of the lecture. And I get annoyed when professors hand out materials that have pictures on them. I usually take the class materials to the Support Center to get them scanned by an Optical Character Reader, but it often cannot recognize the picture, so it is quite complicated to process everything.”
Similarly, it is hard to get education materials. The number of students with disabilities who attend university has already surpassed 7,000, but among nine universities in Seoul, less than a quarter of those universities provide substitute materials for the disabled, according to Daily UNN. Substitute materials are designed to help the disabled students have no limits on their studying by providing additional resources. The reality is, only Seoul National University and Ewha Woman’s University respectively have 143 and 183 braille books for their blind students, while Sogang University offers 150 large printed books.
It is problematic that schools do not have many substitute materials, but that is not the only issue. Students with disabilities also find it hard to search for where those materials come from, as they are not made by the university itself. Students can get them only from the National Library for the Disabled.
“I have not experienced any difficulties yet, but I think it can be very hard for students who cannot see or hear, to keep up classes. It is really important not to make them feel they are excluded, but I feel like not only HUFS, but also universities in Korea do not provide a suitable education for the disabled students yet,” said Kim Min-ju, Chinese Language and Literature ‘17.
Nonexistence of an official watchdog
The reason this happened lies behind a government ignorant of disabled students, especially for those who have been left to care facilities on their own. In short, a lack of government supervision of universities treatment of disabled students leaves this matter unsettled.
The truth is, however, according to the amendment of the law that supports the disabled, the elderly, and pregnant women, facilities that are designated to be Barrier Free by presidential executive order have to follow the rules in construction.
Barrier Free is a measurement that both the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport unveiled in hopes of all people including the disabled, the elderly, pregnant women, or someone in need of some social protection to have no inconvenience in utilizing facilities. Under the implementation of this scheme, the majority of universities became a barrier-free zone for disabled students.
Toilets for the disabled and ramps next to the stairs, which are parts of carrying out the measure, are not a rare sight anymore. However, it has come under criticism for its poor maintenance.
This is because the university itself does not have enough money to invest in making facilities better as students with disabilities are comparative minorities, which are few in number. The university sees the necessity of things being fixed, but since there is no endeavor made by the government, it has been postponed over and over.
Indifference of school communities
There is no doubt that students with disabilities have a lot of concerns from A to Z. When applying for the university with special admissions for students with disabilities, they need to check every detail since it is different from school to school. To add to that matter, any possibility that they might face in college life requires their concern. Students with disabilities who feel helpless with this can get help from the Support Center for Disabled Students.
The Support Center for Disabled Students is a center that promotes and builds a better environment for the disabled where they can do things independently with state support in school. It provides all-round service for students with disabilities and offers them job arrangement services by connecting some companies which create more quality jobs for people with disabilities. It holds educational activities to raise public awareness on the need to improve social environments for the disabled as well.
However, it is not as complete as it might seem like. No firm policies for educational support exist. The persons concerned rapped out a complaint that it is hard to satisfy all the requisites for students with disabilities within a limited budget. According to the National Library for the Disabled, it requires 800,000 Korean won (US$708.97) to make one book for someone who is visually impaired, which makes universities hesitant to purchase such materials.
The thing is, most of the universities do not allocate enough of their budget for substitute materials for the disabled students. They do not try to leave money on developing the materials as long as there exists this prevailing idea that it is pointless to expand substitute materials due their infrequent usage. The university backs up student requests for needed materials, but this is limited to certain materials for lectures.
“HUFS does not compile a budget for substitute materials. We do not feel there is a desperate need as there are only three disabled students who are at our school,” said a person concerned working at the HUFS Support Center for Disabled Students.
However, prejudices against the disabled will hardly be prevented without a fundamental change in perceptions. In order to fundamentally address the issue of the disabled, there needs to be an understanding of the distorted perceptions that exist about them which give rise to separation between the disabled and non-disabled people.
Need for supervision by government
The Government should strive to ensure a sense of equality for the disabled. Kim, a student attending Seoul National University, talked about the importance of the role of the government. Government should include stricter monitoring of facilities at universities.
State support for disability care services is far below average in terms of the volume of its budget. In an aim to make college a better place for disabled students, focusing on the fact that university is not the answer itself is a must.
Active support from school communities
Regarding the lack of effort to correct perceptions, School communities need to put more weight on measures to boost education and campaigns to correct perceptions.
School communities also need to take steps against ignorance regarding disabled students. It is important for people to develop proper and decent perceptions on disabilities, and this can only be achieved by putting related subjects in the regular school curriculum. Currently, education on disabled issues is conducted sparsely on the sidelines of the regular curriculum.
Violence against the disabled does not suddenly occur out of nowhere. Prejudices against the disabled continue, so the university needs a lot of preparation to house the students with disabilities.
Support for disabled students has improved compared to that of the past, even if there is a slight difference between universities. However, equality is still a long way off. Just like the saying goes, “For some, it is Mt. Everest.” It is a must to be aware of the fact that something mundane can be something hard for someone. In order for the disabled students to be able to study without any limits and minimize the inconvenience they face every day, it is urgently needed to thoroughly see the structure of the matter, not just glimpse at it.
Reporter of National Section