[Feature] Wheelchair woes still blight Seoul
People with disabilities still face accessibility issues throughout the city
Published : Jun 2, 2021 - 11:27
Updated : Jun 3, 2021 - 09:41
A convenience store in Jung-gu, Seoul, is not wheelchair accessible. (Shin Ji-hye/The Korea Herald)

Going to a new restaurant and eating out is not a big deal for most Seoulites, but it is a challenge for Lim Sung-hee, 42, who has used a wheelchair for about 20 years since being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

Many restaurants, coffee shops and convenience stores in Seoul remain inaccessible to her because of stairways and raised door thresholds. In her wheelchair, she can’t get over steps higher than 5 centimeters.

To avoid frustration, Lim tries to visit only those restaurants or coffee shops she has been to before.

“When I have a lunch or dinner appointment at a new place, I often visit it a day before,” she said.

She used to call ahead and ask about wheelchair access, but sometimes the information she got over the phone proved inaccurate.

“For nondisabled people, 5 centimeters is nothing. They don’t perceive it as an obstacle because they can easily get in,” she said.

“In some cases, I visited the place after I heard there was a ramp. But I found that the starting point of the ramp was over 5 centimeters (off the ground). In other cases, there was a ramp at the door, only to find a stairway inside,” she said. “In such cases, ramps are meaningless.”

A restaurant and coffee shop in Jung-gu, Seoul, are not wheelchair accessible. (Shin Ji-hye/The Korea Herald)

According to the 1998 Act on Welfare of Persons With Disabilities, buildings with more than 300 square meters of floor space are required to install wheelchair ramps to ensure that older adults, pregnant women and people with disabilities can use the facilities safely and conveniently.

But according to Lee Woon-yong, a manager at the Seoul office of the Korea Association of Persons with Physical Disabilities, there too many buildings that are too small for the law to apply.

“So we are calling for cooperation from private facilities and are pushing ahead with projects to provide free ramps through the support of the Seoul Metropolitan Government,” he said. 

The projects will give wheelchair users better access to convenience stores, pharmacies and restaurants. About 200 million won ($180,424) has been set aside for that purpose this year.

Most subway stations in Seoul are wheelchair-friendly, Lim said.

“Most of them have elevators, wide gates for wheelchairs and toilets for the disabled. And they are free,” she said, adding that this was the result of yearslong protests.

Still, inconvenience remains. Some subway stations have wide gaps between the platforms and the trains, and others have a significant height difference.

Once when she tried to get off the subway at Dongguk University Station, her wheelchair got stuck in the wide gap between the train and the platform. She managed to get out because people helped her. But she was “in a panic.”

(right) The wide gap between the subway platform and the entrance to the train at Dongguk University Subway Station in Seoul presents a hazard for wheelchair users. (left) At Euljiro 1-ga Subway Station in Seoul, there is a significant height difference between the subway platform and the entrance to the train. (Shin Ji-hye/The Korea Herald)

Still, things are much better in Seoul compared with other parts of the country, which she said are sorely lacking in facilities for people with disabilities. More than 60,000 people in South Korea use electric wheelchairs, according to government data, and the total number of wheelchair users is estimated at over 100,000 when manual wheelchairs are included, though there is no data for those. 

But accessibility isn’t the greatest challenge Lim faces.

“For people like us, the psychological barrier is greater than physical discomfort.”

“Still, many shop owners or staff members are not too pleased when (people in) wheelchairs are trying to get in. Some even directly tell us not to come in the door,” Lim said.

This is understandable, she said, because chairs need to be moved and the presence of a wheelchair must bother the staff.

“Still, it’s not like we’re eating for free,” she added.

“We feel very grateful when an owner tells us not to worry and kindly pulls out a chair. There, we can eat comfortably.”

By Shin Ji-hye (