Supporting disabled activists to be heard – reflections on the events at the SWSD 2016 Conference in Seoul, Korea, 27-30th of June 2016.
Due to jetlag after a nearly 24-hour journey, I had to catch up with the Opening ceremony of the SWSD 2016 conference (27 June, COEX Centre, Seoul) on twitter, rather than in person. The hashtag #SWSD2016 started to show some content, but only one caught my attention. A colleague from the US, Dr Coleen Fisher, published:
“Ppl w/disabilities protest #swsd2016 opening ceremony dragged out screaming. Where’s #justice & #dignity for them?”
I was horrified and needed to know more.
Colleen also posted the web address for the organisation. I have no knowledge of Korean (and google translate doesn’t do as good a job as one would like), but their web page led me to their twitter account. One of their most recent posts was one from their facebook page, with a video showing one of the Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD) female protesters carried out of the COEX auditorium by four men. She was out of her wheelchair and screaming.
How can this happen? In a room full of social workers from across the world, why would no one stop this? The Guardian reported that one of the colleagues did speak up at the discussion which followed – ‘at a conference which has a theme ‘dignity and worth for all people’ how can this happen?’, the colleague asked. Ruth Stark, IFSW President was reported to have answered that it was a demonstration by people wanting to be heard – a message also highlighted in the IFSW report launched at the Conference. “We heard the demonstration, we saw the demonstration, we need to work out how people can be heard without having to do it in such a way as we heard happen today.”.
The leaflet distributed at the protest (also tweeted on the day) clarified that the SADD are in a continuous fight to force the government to abolish the Disability Rating System (DRS) and Obligatory Provider System (OPS) and their use as a means for the allocation and provision of social welfare in the Republic of Korea. The former depersonifies people with disabilities and turns them into their disability ‘rating’, based on which (insufficient) personal assistance is allocated. Furthermore, under the OPS, the family is obliged to provide the service first and foremost (and not the state). Big society idea sure does travel. The system keeps both the disabled people and their families in poverty and at risk of loosing their lives.
They stormed the stage when the Conference participants were being welcomed by the Minister of Health and Welfare of the Republic of Korea, Mr. Chung Chin-Youb. In the past four years, Mr. Chin-Youb refused all of the SADD requests to meet him. Storming the stage was the only way to be heard.
Four people carrying out the SADD protester weren’t the organisers, but the venue security. Many of the people who were at the venue at the time reported that it was too dark to see what was actually happening and the overall protest too loud to hear the screams. The SADD protest was squashed before everyone could fully grasp what was going on.
What to do after you see a video of someone screaming and being carried out of an opening for a Conference you are due to attend and contribute to? This is a social work event. It was, therefore, my event, too. I felt that, if I were to remain silent, go to bed, attend the Conference the next day, this would be equal to allowing such actions to happen in my name. I shared the video with the SWAN, IASSW and IFSW colleagues via facebook. Vassilis Ioakimidis (a fellow SWAN Steering Committee member also present at the Conference) and I were asked to co-ordinate a response on behalf of SWAN. I contacted SADD via facebook, explaining that I am attending the Conference, am appalled by what I saw and asked them to let me know if we can help ensure they are heard.
In parallel, I started drafting a letter to all of the Conference organisers, requesting an official apology to the SADD protesters and for them to be given a space in one of the plenary sessions to voice their concerns. One of the best ways to ensure people are heard is to involve them in the co-production of all we do. Therefore, SADD could have – should have – been involved in the Conference preparation, given a stage from the start. That request was also included in the letter. I hoped and continue to hope that what has happened at the SWSD2016 Opening Ceremony never happens again.
I shared the draft with the SADD representatives, Vassilis, and Guy Shennan, BASW Chair (also present at the Conference), so that we could jointly finalise it. Vassilis, Guy and I met the following morning and decided to circulate the agreed letter among other conference delegates for them to add their signatures. SADD representatives got in touch and said they want to hold a press conference at the Conference venue that day (28 June) as well as meet the Mayor, who was due to attend the Conference Social the same evening.
Vassilis also helped get in touch with Ruth Hardy from The Guardian, who was interested in the story. I have put her in touch with the SADD representatives and forwarded all of the accompanying materials about what happened and how we plan to respond. Ruth Stark, IFSW President, suggested for SADD members to meet one of the plenary speakers, Romy Mathys (a social worker who works with HIV-positive women in Switzerland) to negotiate how SADD concerns are to be listened to by the organisers.
In the end, the SADD press conference went ahead the same day as planned, but with participation of IFSW representatives holding up the SADD protest banners in support. The venue security hovered around, but stayed away. IFSW also agreed to provide them with a space at the plenary before the Closing ceremony.
The next day (29 June), Ruth Allen, the BASW Chief Executive, Guy Shennan, the BASW Chair and I were invited to visit the SADD occupation site at the Gwanghwamun subway station in Seoul. Over the past four years (since the start of the occupation), it has also served as a HQ for their on-going activism. We talked about the perverse cuts and incentives which mark so much of current social welfare world-wide. Their concerns and activism to date is similar to that of the disabled activists world–wide – from DPAC in the UK, to the disabled activist in Bolivia. Much like the protesters in Cochabamba, SADD activists also hanged themselves from a suspension bridge to protest not being heard by the relevant government representatives. If we, as social workers, are not fighting for their right to be heard and protesting with them against the current policies and practices – what are we doing? Social justice may be absent from the Knowledge and Skills Statement for Social Workers in Adult Services in England, but not from the international definition of our profession or commitment within daily social work practice world-wide.
On 30 June, It was wonderful to hear SADD activists speak at the Conference Closing plenary and present a short video about their activism and reasons for it, including deaths of disabled people due to the impact of the current social welfare policies. My greatest surprise came straight after their presentation. While giving his closing remarks, Mr. Heung Bong Cha, Standing Chair of the SWSD2016 Organising Committee, both issued an apology to the SADD activists and called for coproduction and active participation of disabled people, service users and carers in the future international social work events.
This commitment was also emphasised by John Brennan, who spoke at the Closing Ceremony on behalf of the Irish Association of Social Workers, the hosts for the 2018 SWSD Conference in Dublin, Ireland. Thanks to an intervention by the Chair of the BASW International Committee, Jane Shears, the IFSW Statute now also includes a commitment to co-production in all IFSW activities. The IFSW also encouraged the representatives of all social work associations to send a letter to the Embassies of the Republic of Korea in their countries, asking for the abolishment of the DRS and OPS.
All that happened made me think of several things:
1. Despite reports to the contrary, it takes more than one organisation or individual to achieve any change, no matter how big or small. All that happened during the Conference was very much a joint effort between different individuals and organisations – from Dr Fisher who took time to record and tweet the events, over representatives and leaders of SWAN, BASW, progressive social workers from Asia, to Ruth Hardy from the Guardian and the IFSW. It took all of us, not one of us.
For my part – SADD activists told me what they wanted and stated what they’d like to see happen. I did my best to pass that information on and to pass on return messages from colleagues, journalists and conference organisers to them. That is all I did. I have found out as much information as possible, contacted the people directly, introduced myself, listened and acted only upon the wishes specified by the activists themselves. It is the core of social work I know.
2. First and foremost, it took the bravery and persistent activism of SADD, by any means necessary and at any opportunity. As professionals, we need to learn how to take a lead from them more than we do at present; to understand each and every protest, and provide support so that their concerns can be addressed, for the injustices to be stopped. The injustices which infuse the lives of disabled activists are becoming graver each day, and for ever increasing numbers of people. Hence, their voices and protests are likely to get louder and include all and any means necessary. People are fighting for their very lives and largely met with silence and minimal support. Our profession needs to wake up to that and ensure their fight is our fight, every day. It is not just about the daily encounters within the social welfare system. It has to include a fight to overturn unjust policies and legislation and create those that truly allow us to promote the dignity and worth of people.
3. We need to be honest enough to admit that, we, as professionals, still get it wrong. Desperately so. Shaping Our Lives have struggled for many years to get IFSW and the SWSD Conference to be more inclusive of disabled people and service users. A common response received was ‘We’re doing it already’.
Equally, while this action was initiated and supported by the SWAN Steering Committee members, we didn’t take time to listen to our disabled colleagues when we were preparing our last UK Conference. The venue we used for the Conference was not as accessible as it should have been. Instead, we took a shortcut to arrange a date for the Conference as soon as possible – and because we all work on SWAN activities in the precious few moments of our free time and (at least at times), at a rush. However, if we don’t take time to own up to it, to see what happened, how it could have been prevented – nothing will ever change. In the current climate, social work practice and many other professional activities are forced to be presented solely as polished, successful, without flaws. In part at least, this is a defensive mechanism; both outcomes and punishments for some of our mistakes have been too severe and affected the entire profession.
I am concerned that this robs us of a chance to learn from each of our mistakes and makes us defensive. Despite many excellent examples, we are yet to learn and embed co-production with people who use social services across our education, research, practice and activism. It is a relevant goal to have, and we should never deceive ourselves that we are already doing it right.
4. This is not the first time I acted upon an injustice I witnessed. But it is one of the precious few times that I was part of an initiative that was successful in it’s limited, small, way. I did not expect any of it. Radical social work and activism within social work can be a Sisyphus endeavour. Despite persisting at it with full commitment and passion, I realised I forgot to expect a win. I have lost the expectation that our actions will have an immediate or even eventual impact. The backlash against social work in the UK is so fierce, it slashed such an expectation – and it is what we need the most. Equally, SADD activists told us how important it was for them to realise that professionals can listen to their claims and show that their fight is our fight, too. No matter how many times we are attacked as a profession or as activists, no matter what severe injustices we try to address, we should never loose hope that our actions will go unanswered or unnoticed. That is far easier said than done, but it is vital for our very survival.
The real battle still continues – the DRS and OPS are yet to be abolished. As SWAN Steering Committee members, we, therefore, urge all our supporters to write to the Embassy of the Republic of Korea and ask for this to be achieved.
We also hope you will join us in all other SWAN activities and create new ones, as we continue to challenge similar oppressive policies in the UK and all other countries where we are active.
– Rea Maglajlic, SWAN steering committee