IN THIS epoch of ours in which people with disabilities are considered a social minority, it is naturally part of society’s moral norms to help them and meet their needs. However, beliefs and actions that seem so natural that we do not consider them twice are often the ones that desperately need rethinking. Kim Hyeong-soo (’95, Dept. of Korean Language & Lit.) - higher education supervisor at the Korea Students with Disabilities Network for All and also a founding member of Guernica, the one and only student club at Yonsei University which aims to protect the rights of students with disabilities - invites us to view the disabled from a different angle. He proposes a mode of thinking that shatters long-established stereotypes about the disabled, a perspective which our current society critically needs. Kim himself is a living portrayal of one who has lived and is living a life with pride as a disabled individual, and has much advice to give not only as a person with a disability but also as a mentor with much experience.
The Yonsei Annals: What led you to establish Guernica when you were a sophomore? What was it like back then and how would you appraise disability rights today?
Kim: In 1995 when I was a college freshman, 22 students with disabilities entered Yonsei University, which was quite a large number at that time. It was also the time when feminist movements, gay rights movements and more of such were bursting out on campus. Thus, we were able to exchange help and support with other student activists. I believe such circumstantial advantages we had around the mid-1990s and the help we received from many others supported the ground for founding Guernica. Before my friend and I established Guernica, we were especially helped a lot by the Women Students’ Union. This was possible probably because we showed consideration towards issues that concerned not only students with disabilities but also those who were not disabled as well. For instance, when we were demanding the school to install elevators in school buildings, we did not present our physical disabilities as the reason for demand. Instead we focused on the fact that many women on campus wear skirts and high heels, and therefore the installation of elevators would alleviate much of their troubles in getting around school buildings.
Back then, conditions were very adverse for students with disabilities. Not only was there only one bathroom on the entire campus that the disabled could use, students using crutches or wheelchairs could not eat at student cafeterias unless there was someone to hold the tray for them. Meanwhile, there were nondisabled students fighting for disability rights on campus and their actions touched me greatly in that they were fighting for issues which did not even concern themselves directly. This really made me want to build up a connection with other students - students with and without disabilities alike - upon a consensus that we should fight for disability rights. So in 1996, Guernica was founded, based on the principle that it should be open to all students of Yonsei and work for the rights of every single student on campus.
Compared to the past when I was attending Yonsei, the awareness of disability rights has improved, at least in some parts. For instance, the notion that we should support students with disabilities is accepted almost as common sense nowadays. However, there is still a long way to go. Discriminative comments, though they may not be perceived as discriminative at all to the speaker, are still prevalent on campus. We are lacking in education which aims to fix stereotyped perceptions toward the disabled and prevent discrimination against them. I believe Yonsei has improved a lot over the years in terms of disability rights, but it still requires much contemplation of the basic philosophy we would need to have as intellectuals. Education for professors and part-time lecturers would also be very crucial.
Annals: You have majored in Korean Language and Literature. Was there any reason for choosing this particular major?
Kim: I was originally interested in literature, which is why I chose to enroll in the Department of Korean Language and Literature. I had always wanted to write beautiful poems. However, even as a young adult, I felt the discrepancy between the literary world I wanted to create and the harsh reality, the world I was actually living in. Despite my interest in literature, I had to let go of my literary aspirations.
On another note though, I worked as a journalist for some time for an online newspaper. The founder of that online news agency was a graduate of the Department of Korean Language and Literature, too. He needed someone to write articles that covered topics related to disabilities. I guess I could take advantage of my major in working as a journalist and also in working for disability rights because in such sectors, the study of humanities is quite important.
While I wrote for the paper, I realized that my disability actually enabled me to write a lot and receive quite a lot of attention for my writings as well. Revealing my disability could actually serve as an advantage, in the same way it has enabled me to establish a student club and even receive a compliment from a woman that I am actually sexy on my crutches.
Annals: Currently, you counsel students with disabilities at the Korea Students with Disabilities Network for All. Including such counseling, could you explain specifically what you do at the Network? Also, could you explain further the Network’s motto, “Pride disability, enjoy disability, and power disability”?
Kim: We mainly help colleges with adverse conditions for students with disabilities to establish committees or institutions that can aid the disabled students. The Network has two main principles - first, do not focus on expanding the organization and second, aim to help more students with disabilities to enter college. The first principle is necessary because once the organization begins to grow, we will get trapped in bureaucratic formalities. Rather, we ought to focus on empowering individual members. As for the second principle, students with disabilities still face considerable difficulties in the process of entering college. Once they have entered college, they could easily go on to fight for their own rights themselves, but before entering college, they are in fact very much in need of help in preparing for entrance exams and such. However, we only go as far as to connect the students with the mentors they need, as too much intervention would harm the students’ self-sustainability. Currently, I am primarily focusing on students with developmental disabilities, for they are ones that face greater difficulties in entering college than students who are physically handicapped.
In terms of the Network’s motto, students with disabilities need to have the pride that their school is developing because of students like themselves. Disabled people who have pride in themselves are ones who can also give enjoyment to nondisabled people around them; they have the power to make others want to work with them. They should try to make other students feel that working with disabled students can be difficult at times, but nonetheless is an enjoyable experience. Lastly, working to heighten the rights of students with disabilities could contribute in heightening the rights of nondisabled students as well – the case of the installation of elevators I mentioned before could be an example.
Annals: What do you think is the most critical issue regarding disability rights on campus or in our society as a whole?
Kim: There are three points I would like to make. First, we should make an environment in which the disabled are not discriminated against. Second, the education of nondisabled people is needed. We have to acknowledge the fact that as women are having children at an older age and our lifespans are growing longer and longer, having a disability can always happen to our children as well as to ourselves. Therefore, we all should be required to learn not to feel ashamed or guilty for having a disability. Third, there should be more room for the disabled to contribute to the lives of the nondisabled. For example, when building a facility for the disabled, we should be able to take into account what the facility could do for the local community as well. I believe it is crucial that the disabled be concerned about not only issues that concern themselves but issues of the entire society. When the disabled are able to give help to the nondisabled, a mutually supportive relationship between the disabled and nondisabled could become a part of our culture.
Also, though I am currently focusing on students with developmental disabilities, mentally disabled students such as ones with schizophrenia are actually facing much more difficulties in getting into universities. Yet in the meantime, there is not much support that can be given to them. In light of this situation, I personally wish Yonsei could become the leading model in creating an environment that is favorable towards students with disabilities. This could be achieved through hiring disabled people as members of Yonsei personnel, or embracing students receiving special education more actively into the Yonseian community; for instance, by inviting these students to the university’s annual entrance and graduation ceremonies. Yonsei University is one of the few colleges that has a special school for elementary, middle, and high school students with disabilities, but it needs to give more concern in providing a structure in which these students at special schools can actually aspire to enter Yonsei. I hope Yonsei University could become a school that acknowledges the fact that disabled students cannot become nondisabled, recognizes them for who they are, and thus gives them acceptance to Yonsei because Yonsei needs students with disabilities.
Annals: Do you have any last advice you would like to give to Yonsei students?
Kim: When I was a student at Yonsei University, there was a woman who wanted to have a blind date with me. At that time, being more self-conscious of my disability and also too preoccupied with dealing with disability rights issues on campus, I turned down the offer. Looking back however, I greatly regret my decision. Love in one’s twenties is something very precious and valuable, and it is worth giving your all for once. I had let somebody down who had positive feelings for me because of the fear that she might not like me for my disability. But I realized over time that when one is in love, no such thing as a disability could keep him or her from being true to one’s feelings. You do not need to pursue a love relationship excessively, but there is also no need to block a possible opportunity of falling in love that has come before you.
Other than love, what is most important is that you do not waste precious time. Have confidence in yourself and put your thoughts into action. Your twenties do not come twice. I truly would sell my soul to be a freshman at college again. Do not worry too much about what to do; if you have something you would like to do, just go for it. Do not be set back for fear of not being able to take full responsibility – youth gives you the indulgence, to be forgiven for whatsoever.