By Ju-min Park and Jane Chung
SEOUL (Reuters) - Wheelchair-bound Choi Jong-hun spends most Fridays in a makeshift tent encampment in one of Seoul's busy subway stations, eating instant noodles as commuters dodge and weave around him and a handful of fellow demonstrators.
He's part of a protest that has lasted more than 60 days and aims to change South Korea's benefits system, which campaigners say humiliates disabled people by "grading" them according to their disability.
While South Korea has made the leap from poverty to rich nation in a generation, its conservative culture, which prizes physical perfection, still largely fails to come to grips with the challenges of disability.
Choi and other campaigners say the government's assessment system, which determines the access to crucial basic pensions worth up to $100 a month, as well as awarding support services such as home help, is degrading and inhumane.
"How dare (the government) label us like meat?" demanded Choi, a 48-year-old former construction worker who had a stroke in 2002 that left him partly paralyzed.
"No senior citizens or women are graded when the country provides welfare services. It's only the disabled," echoes one of the group's brochures.
Things are tough for the handicapped in other ways as well. They may be neglected by family members, who don't understand what state services may be available, while opportunities for self-support and mainstream jobs are also limited.
For example, visually handicapped people can't take the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) exam - required by South Korean companies on job applications - more than four times total, while ordinary people are allowed to take it 14 times a year, said Moon Jae-in, a liberal presidential candidate from the major opposition party.
As a result, the poverty rate for the disabled in South Korea- who make up around five percent of the 50 million population - is more than twice that of other rich nations, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
"The classification system for the disabled ignores their dignity," Moon said.
In Choi's case, the assessment of his medical needs - including language problems as a result of his stroke - has been set as a "level 2" disability, which means he is not entitled to help with his laundry and cooking.
That forces him to live with another disabled person who has the highest level of incapacity classification, entitling him to a carer to help with daily tasks for free.
"The problem is that the criteria to classify disabilities and the demand for social services from disabled people does not match," said Jeong Jong-hwa, a social welfare professor at Sahmyook University in Seoul.
In particular, the strictly medical assessment system has problems since it fails to take into account the different nuances of disabilities, resulting in potential unfairness.
An official at South Korea's Ministry of Health and Welfare, which administers the benefits, says that it is aware of some of the issues and is studying the problem, although it may be moving too slowly for the country's human rights body, which is considering asking parliament to revise the system.
The official declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to media.
Until any revision takes place, however, protests may be the only way to go. In the early 2000s, a number of disabled people shackled themselves to subway tracks to demand improved access to public transport, resulting in elevators in some stations.
"Passers-by sometimes say "why don't you have talks (with the government)?" said 38-year old Kim Jin-woo, who has muscular dystrophy and is taking part in the protests.
"But they have no idea. There's no other way to make this change."
(Reporting by Ju-min Park and Jane Chung; Editing by David Chance and Elaine Lies)