Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
The other day, I found out an interesting thing while cruising through Reddit’s front page. There, I stumbled upon an interesting fact from the “Today I Learned” subreddit. In South Korea, one can only become a licensed masseur if they are visually impaired and this law has been contested recently. Originally, the law was introduced in South Korea by Japanese Imperialists in 1913 (The Telegraph). The United States post-war government struck down the law in 1946, but the South Korean government brought it back in 1963 (The New York Times). In 2006, there was a question of whether or not this law was infringing on free employment rights. The constitutional court ruled first in 2008 and again in 2017 that the law should be preserved. In the eyes of the court, massaging was one of the few jobs that a visually impaired person could enjoy to its fullest extent as well as having their own niche where they can make a living. Despite the court ruling, there are plenty of unlicensed masseurs—even under the threat of heavy fines (thousands of dollars in USD). This story made me wonder about the perception and integration of people with disabilities into society and employment.
The cultural view of people with disabilities in history are widely varied across countries. For instance, in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, royal court jesters were often disabled mentally or physically (Boston Lyric Opera). While they were never part of standard court life and ostracized from society, jesters were often respected for their wisdom and wit. They were seen as truth-tellers and were allowed to speak to the heads of households freely without fear of punishment. Over time, a king and his jester would hold a protective relationship with each other. In fact, to compliment a jester would be to compliment the king. However, not every person had the luck or opportunity to become a jester and became social outcasts. The mentally and physically disabled experienced a large amount of persecution and violence. For instance, both the mentally and physically handicapped were the subjects of execution through drowning and burning during the Spanish Inquisition and were abandoned or killed in Ancient Greece (Sagepub). As societies across the world have advanced, different governments have sought out ways to integrate people with disabilities into society, especially through employment.
To many people, working is not just a paycheck at the end of the day, it is also symbolic of agency, identity, and dignity. Because of societal stigma of physical and mental disabilities across the world, governments have taken steps to help integrate the physically and mentally disabled fully into the working world. For instance, in 2014, Singapore rolled out the Open Door Program (Asia One). The Singapore government hopes to use 30 million dollars to fund the hiring and training of mentally and physically disabled workers and to incentivize companies to hire qualified workers. The money goes towards apprenticeships, workplace design, and job design to help integrate workers into being a part of the company. The plan so far has produced great success, as in the span of two years, the amount of disabled people being hired has tripled (Channel NewsAsia). The European Union has taken its own steps to help the disabled gain access to the labor market. Countries like Germany require companies with a certain amount of employers to have a proportion of disabled employees, or they will have to pay a fine (DW). Oftentimes, the companies will just take the fine. Countries that do not even have that provision such as Hungary have an even smaller proportion of disabled people employed. Disability advocates in the European Union are working to amend this situation.
The treatment of the disabled by society in both the social and labor spheres have evolved over time. While countries have grown beyond abandoning and killing the disabled, there is still a long way to go. In places like the European Union, poverty and social exclusion are still problems disproportionately felt by the mentally and physically handicapped. However, with time and innovation, it is possible that society will change for the better.