Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Cities, Disability, and a Candle Light Ceremony

Day Three of the trip to Gwangju, South Korea was the day of my presentation for the World Human Rights Cities 2014 Forum.  I was one of six presenters who were part of the "Cities and Disability" Session.  One speaker was from Brazil, an architect who worked for the Municipal Government in Curitiba, a city of about 1.8 million.  The other four speakers were from Korea, two from Gwangju and two from Seoul.  As far as I could tell, three of us were disabled.  The first speaker works for an independent living center in Gwangju.  He used a power wheelchair. He kicked off his presentation by indicating that it might be a little hypocritical for Gwangju to call itself a human rights city, considering that less than 20 percent of the bus fleet is accessible to riders with physical disabilities.  He also suggested that barriers to access would remain because local authorities care more about budgets than the human rights of people with disabilities.  He compared local authorities to the crew of Sewol, which was concerned with profits, not the passengers on the ferry.

man in wheelchair giving presentation.  Desk in front of him, screen behind him.  Man to his right holding paper as accommodation
First Speaker of the Cities and Disabilities Session
Not that I was hoping to hear disparaging comments about a city I knew very little about, but if we were going to sit through six hours of presentations (mine included), I was happy that at least one of us was ready to challenge the establishment.   The second speaker expressed the same sentiments, in a less direct way.  He was an expert on Universal Design.  He opened his talk by explaining that he was asked to talk for an hour about highlights of Universal Design in Gwangju, but that he would be hard pressed to find enough highlights to fill an hour of time.  He did talk about the baseball stadium, which I had visited the previous day. He mentioned something about Universal Design that I had never heard.  He said that for every five male restrooms in the stadium, the stadium was required to build eight female bathrooms.  Considering the long lines I have seen coming from women's rooms at concerts, stadiums, theaters, and restaurants, it makes perfect sense and seems like a insightful application of universal design.

The fourth speaker was the architect from Brazil.  I hung out with her and her husband a lot at the conference.  She spoke about work Curitiba had done to improve access, and stressed that changes were being made with participation from the disability community.  Throughout our time together, she often stressed this approach -- the social model approach of "Nothing About Us without Us."  Nothing should be done on behalf of people with disabilities without the input of people with disabilities.   It might have been the translation, but the final speaker, a professor from Seoul, seemed to be a little behind on this approach. She hesitated when talking about consumer driven peer support, as if she was not sure if this was the right philosophy.

image of group of about thirty people, some in wheelchairs, posing in front of room for photo
Participants and some of the attendees at Cities and Disabilities Sessions
Though I looked at my paper too much, and fell behind on my power point, I felt pretty good about my presentation.  I covered my material and may have made somebody laugh (with a joke) at least once.

I was thrilled and energized to complete the presentation, and felt pretty good about all the work I had put into it, but the day got ever better after the conference sessions.  At seven o'clock, we all loaded up on buses lined up outside the hotel and drove down town for a candlelight ceremony recognizing the victims of the April 16 Ferry Disaster in South Korea.  Evidently, each
Saturday, Seoul hosts a candlelight ceremony.  People plan to do so until the government apologizes and launches an inquiry into why emergency services (like the Coast Guard) didn't respond appropriately.   Gwangju doesn't host ceremonies each Saturday but did on May 17 because it was the eve of the traditional May 18 Recognition Events. Though what happened in South Korea is a tragedy, especially for all the families involved, I was happy to participate in the candlelight
image of stage and crowd at outdoor ceremony in evening
Candlelight Ceremony on May 17 for Sewol Ferry Disaster
 ceremony.  A group of us made our way near the stage and sat amongst the crowd for nearly an hour, watching the speakers, musicians, and performers.  According to a woman with our group, emergency services on the water could have saved so many more people.  They had two hours to do so.  But they only rescued passengers who were on the deck.  They never went below deck and told the passengers in their cabins to evacuate.  Indeed, that does deserve an apology and an investigation. She explained that citizens of South Korea are also furious with the media for not being critical of the government response to the sinking.

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