Young Woo Kang, international disability rights pioneer, died of cancer in the early morning of Feb. 23, at the age of 68.
Kang, who lost his eyesight at the age of 14, was the first blind Korean to earn a Ph.D., and in 2002, he was nominated by President George W. Bush to serve on the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that makes recommendations to the President and to Congress on issues affecting the 54 million Americans with disabilities. The U.S. Senate twice confirmed his nomination, and for six years, Kang worked on issues ranging from the inclusion of people with disabilities in emergency planning to cultural differences and attitudes in empowering people with disabilities.
His journey from a blind teenager to Presidential appointee was a remarkable one.
Kang was born in South Korea in 1944, and his father passed away when he was 13 years old. The following year, Kang suffered a retinal detachment in a sports accident. At the time, discrimination against the handicapped—and the blind in particular—was widespread. It was a common superstition that seeing a blind person would bring bad luck, and the only occupations available to a blind person were as a fortune teller or masseuse.
In 1960, after several unsuccessful surgeries, it was confirmed that Kang would never regain his sight. His mother, devastated by the news, died of a stroke within hours of learning of his plight. His older sister was then charged with caring for the family, but the stresses of the responsibility for herself and her three younger siblings would be too great, and 16 months later, she, too, passed away.
As he coped with his grief, Kang turned his focus and resolve to his rehabilitation—and refused to accept a fate determined by superstition and prejudice. Initially denied even the opportunity to take the college entrance exam, he challenged the system, placed 10th among hundreds of applicants and graduated with highest honors from Yonsei University.
He then had to successfully lobby the Korean Ministry of Education to change its policy that prevented people with disabilities from studying abroad. Through the support of a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship and additional scholarships through the University of Pittsburgh, in 1976, Kang became the first blind Korean to earn a Ph.D.
Kang was determined to help others follow in his footsteps and to open even more doors for people with disabilities. He wrote an autobiography, A Light in My Heart, which has been translated into seven languages, is a U.S. Library of Congress talking book, and was the basis for television programs and movies in South Korea. He also created a foundation to promote equal participation for the disabled and quickly became an internationally renowned disability rights advocate, author and speaker.
Prior to his appointment to the National Council on Disability, Kang urged passage of legislation in Korea similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and former President George H.W. Bush and former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh aided in his efforts.
Through his foundation and as a board member of Goodwill Industries International, he founded Goodwill in Korea, which serves thousands of people every year and provides job training and career services to people with disabilities and others who are trying to enter the workforce.
As vice chairman of the World Committee on Disability, he was a driving force behind the establishment of the Franklin D. Roosevelt International Disability Award. This award recognizes and encourages progress by nations in expanding the participation of people with disabilities, in fulfillment of the goals of the United Nations World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons.
Kang received many honors and awards, including an Honorary Doctorate in Literature from Yonsei University and the Rotary Foundation’s Global Alumni Service to Humanity Award.
Kang is survived by his wife, Kyoung Sook Kang, who retired after nearly three decades of teaching visually impaired students in the Gary, Indiana, public school system; his son Paul Kang, an ophthalmologist at Eye Doctors of Washington; his son Christopher Kang, senior counsel to President Barack Obama; and four grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial gifts be sent to the Korean Central Presbyterian Church or to the Rotary Foundation, Dr. Young Woo and Kyoung Sook Kang Peace Fellow Fund (E10860), 14280 Collections Center Drive, Chicago, IL 60693. This is the only fund established in Young Woo Kang’s name.
This article was published in the March 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!