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Accessibility in Seoul

October 27, 2010

>이는 10 월 2010 년 휠체어와 함께 서울 하는것 우리의 경험, 특히 지하철 시스템에 대한 게시물입니다. 서울은 2004 년 첫 여행부터 장애를 가진이 도시 사람들에게 접근할 수 제작에 많은 진전을 이루었습니다.

Accessibility was one of the reasons we decided to make our first family visit to Korea now, instead of waiting until the girls are all older. Because I’d traveled to Korea with Faith when she was six, we knew that Mercy and Hope were old enough to remember the trip. Joy, at three, was not. But in the near future, Joy will begin using a power wheelchair for mobility. And I knew from my previous trips that wheelchair accessibility in Korea would likely be an issue. So this post is a report on our experience with the state of accessibility in Seoul as of October 2010.

Seoul has come a long way since my first visit in early 2004. At that time, there were no curb cuts. Because each property owner was responsible for the patch of paving outside his door, the sidewalks were a crazy-quilt of paving materials. The “accessible” subway stations we encountered had only a metal platform lift that rode on a rail over the stairs. The lifts had no latching or tie down mechanisms to secure a chair to the lift and mostly seemed to be used for cargo. On my intervening visits, I’ve watched Korea put in curb cuts, create uniform sidewalks with embedded guides for the visually impaired, add audible cues to pedestrian crossing lights, and install elevators at many subway stations. To be clear: few of these would meet ADA standards in the U.S. A curb cut can still have a one-inch lip, an elevator may be too small to turn a wheelchair around in. The paver sidewalks were not laid over a compacted base so have heaved and are uneven. Pedestrians still share the sidewalks with motorcycles and cars. However, Seoul has come along way toward accessibility for people with disabilities in the past six years.

Testament to that fact, this trip we encountered people with significant disabilities wherever we went: visually impaired people were out with canes and guide dogs. People with impaired mobility were out using power wheelchairs. Groups of adults with cognitive differences were out in wheelchairs being pushed by other adults. It was wonderful to see Korea including its own people in the daily life of its largest city. Previously I wondered if there were many adults living with disabilities in Korea. Obviously, there are. But until recently, inclusion was not much of an option.

We were evaluating accessibility in terms of Joy’s stroller-style push chair, below, with an eye toward the power chair she will be using the next time we return.

For all practical purposes, Joy’s current chair is essentially an advanced umbrella stroller (the Special Tomato Buggy) with seating inserts (Special Tomato, size 1) to help her sit up. So what we were seeking in terms of accessibility this trip was not much different from parents using any stroller. Except that Joy can’t walk. With the distances to cover on foot in Seoul, any parent sightseeing with a jet-legged toddler or preschooler would want to use a stroller.

Tourists in Seoul typically get around by taxi or subway. We found no taxis with lifts of any sort. So chairs and strollers need to collapse to fit in the trunk of a taxi car. (While the Special Tomato collapses like an umbrella stroller, the inserts must be unbuckled and removed first. So we avoid collapsing it when we can.) Some Deluxe Taxis are actually mini-vans. Those were variable in terms of Joy’s chair fitting in the space behind the back seat without collapsing it first. Often,we simply had to pull the van seat forward to make more space. The stroller fit in every Jumbo Cab we took. However we never found a Deluxe van or a Jumbo van at a cab stand. We had to book one the day before we needed it. So they only worked for planned trips (like to the Agency, to the train station, to the airport). The rest of the time we were dependent upon the subway.

Most of the subways we encountered in Seoul had an elevator from ground level down to the ticketing level. The majority of these elevators are located in the middle of the subway station, midway between the exit/entrance stairs. However a few were at one end of the station or the other, so sometimes we just had to walk above ground until we found one. A few stations (Myeongdong comes to mind) still have no elevators. Because all the elevators at all the stations have been retrofitted, the engineers had to squeeze in the mechanical tower wherever it fit. So in many cases, the elevator placement isn’t user-intuitive.

At ground level, the location of most of the elevators are not marked with signage. But it also isn’t necessary since the big glass box looking like an overgrown telephone booth –the above ground elevator housing –could be seen a block away. Inside the subway stations, the locations of elevators are  usually marked with a sign like this:

An elevator 35 meters away like this one, was a happy find. Sometimes the sign said 150 meters. In that case, we took stock and often decided it would be faster to take Joy out of the stroller and carry it and her up the stairs or escalator. We won’t have that choice when we return next time and she is using a power chair. If you do take an elevator, be prepared for the fact that they are the province of the elderly (with good cause if you’ve experienced Seoul’s subway system). The pecking order is that the elderly go first and Koreans in power chairs go next. Foreigners who appear to be pushing an able-bodied infant in a stroller will be bumped by newspaper vendors and others hauling their wares. So they may have to wait for a few elevators until there is room.

A parenthetical: Maybe, if we were there long enough, we’d get over Minnesota Nice and get pushy. In interpersonal relationships, Koreans are exceedingly kind and gracious. But this is not true in anonymous public situations.  I was pushing Joy down a sidewalk in Itaewan. The sidewalk crossed an alley. I barely paused to look before crossing and we were nearly run down by a driver coming down the alley who didn’t stop. Shaken by our near miss, I protested to my husband, “But pedestrians have the right of way in marked crossings! It is illegal for a driver to cross a sidewalk without stopping!” He reminded me of the obvious: “But we’re not in America.” So: when in Korea, try to make your jet-lagged brain think like a Korean.

Going in and out of the subway system, we found one lane for disabled users at every subway station, even those without elevators. It was a gate that needed to be opened by pulling it toward you. A wheelchair user would have to have the ability to flash his transit card, reach forward, grasp the top of the gate, roll backwards to open the gate while holding onto it, then navigate through the open gate. Obviously even Koreans find this impractical because there was an attendant at most stations who operated the gate. The attendant’s real job may have been to discourage able-bodied people from walking through the accessible lane without paying for a subway ride, which happened at every station where there was no attendant on duty.

Speaking of a subway ride, the card readers for the accessible lane were at the perfect height for a wheel chair user. But the automated kiosks (which dispense transit cards and reload them with money) were not accessible to a seated person. (Aside from that, the kiosks are user-friendly: touch screens with visual and audible cues in English and Korean.)

Once you are through the turnstiles and into the subway system, another accessibility issue crops up: finding the elevator (if there is one) down to track level. Again, engineers must have been challenged to retrofit the system because the presence of an elevator connecting the ground and ticketing levels does not promise there will be an elevator going down to the tracks. There may be an escalator, or stairs may be the only option. I assume that  in the disability community in Korea it is commonly known which stations are completely accessible and which are not. But as tourists we felt at the mercy of the developing system. Again, we were grateful that Joy is at an age when one of us can carry her and the other can carry her equipment.

Down at track level, signs like this one on the floor indicate the subway cars on each train that are accessible.

 

Moving from the platform into the car is easy. The floors are at the same height and the gap between the platform and the train is usually insignificant as long as your wheels are at right angles to the threshold when you cross. Inside an accessible car, there is a space like this one where wheelchair users may park.

 

Often, when we first boarded, the space was filled with standing people. But they always moved to make room for Joy, who usually rode in her chair with the wheels locked, facing out. (In the picture, she was on daddy’s lap.) Power chair users generally parked parallel to the wall looking out toward other subway riders.

At our destination, getting back up to street level was usually the reverse of going down: a trek to locate the elevators, or taking the most direct route by carrying Joy up the stairs. But at one station we were blessed to find this at track level right off our train:

This transit card reader outside the elevator signaled that we would be able to go directly from the tracks all the way up to ground level on the same elevator. It was amazing: exactly how a user-friendly accessible subway system would be designed if it was planned from the drawing board, not retrofitted into an existing system.

It is quite possible that if we lived in Korea and were part of the disabilties community there, we would not find subway accessibilty as challenging as we did as tourists. For example, here are two signs that were widely posted next to each other, obviously directed at wheelchair users, but unfortunately for us, written in Hangul:

 

As Korea innovates ways to make the ancient city of Seoul accessible, it makes sense to start with accessibilty that is meaningful for the Koreans who live there. But I can hope that someday, by the time our little Korean-American is ready to return to her homeland again, even if she uses a wheelchair, that she will find it welcoming and accessible to her. Korea has come so far that it is quite possible. Maybe Joy will grow up to write a guide book called Accessible Seoul, a book I wish was available right now in English.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 4, 2010 11:51 am

    >What a great post! I just came over from Dorothy's blog. We are adopting a little fellow with lower lim differences and I am so thankful to each and every person who blogs about accessibility and the many other things we are so ignorant of. Thanks for the mentorship today!

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