Dr. Whang contracted polio when she was three years old, which caused the limp in her right leg. However, she was able to go through this difficulty from a young age, thanks to the sincerity and care of her family. Her father massaged her leg every night, and Whang’s grandmother took her to visit a renowned hot spring for a type of physical treatment.
“My father would tell me that my right leg was a diamond leg,” Dr. Whang recalled. “Two other children of my father’s friends lost the ability to walk due to polio, so my father told me that I was extremely lucky.”
Although Dr. Whang’s family members cared for her a great deal, they did not pity her and treat her differently, such as exempting her from household responsibilities. One day, Whang was washing the dishes late in the evening under a kerosene lamp. An old lady passing by was surprised to see such a sight and inquired why Whang was doing the dishes. Whang replied as a matter of course that it was her turn to do so.
“You use your hands to do the dishes, not your legs, so it was natural for me to wash the dishes on my turn,” Dr. Whang explained. “Such equal home education enabled me to forget my handicap.”
Along with such encouragement and stimulation, Whang studied hard during her school years and was an excellent student. However, it was not until she met her future husband that she seriously considered entering a medical school. During their first meeting, Dr. Whang’s husband-to-be had earnestly asked her to advance into the field of medical or pharmaceutical science so as to help him later on with the rehabilitation of disabled soldiers.
“Even though I was disabled myself, I had encountered the word ‘rehabilitation’ for the first time from this fellow classmate without disabilities,” Dr. Whang mused. “He was very earnest, and I felt that I mentally fell behind him by at least 10 years.”
Dr. Whang ended up applying for medical school in Ewha, and she successfully completed the demanding programs despite various twists and turns. She experienced some hardships regarding dissection, and in her third year of medical school, she even considered quitting, fasting for three days. Her father’s scolding words that she would be a dropout, a failure if she quit, kept her going.
After a couple years as an intern, in 1965, Dr. Whang started working in the department of rehabilitation for young children in Severance Hospital. It was the first place in Korea to have a rehabilitation center for polio patients, and there were about 30 to 40 young patients. Dr. Whang’s existence at the department was especially meaningful as it presented the patients with a precedent, a role model, giving them hope to go on. The young patients had been locked in narrow borders, left to think that only they were disabled. When they went home for the holidays, their parents would hide them and cover them up at moments of guest visits.
“The children were surprised to see that there were adults who had polio, and they told me it made them realize that they could live on without committing suicide,” Dr. Whang said. “It offered them the possibility and hope that they could become doctors, lawyers, judges, professors and so on.”
Dr. Whang felt a sense of pity and regret regarding the situation of her young patients.
“The once-dead cells caused by polio do not revive,” Dr. Whang stated. “Patients who had contracted polio cannot make a full recovery. It was pitiful that the young, smart patients were left to remain inside the rehabilitation center when they could be studying.”
Dr. Whang’s interaction with her patients had even caught the attention of KBS (Korean Broadcasting System). One of the executives of the broadcaster witnessed Dr. Whang limping along with her patients in the hospital garden, and he had exclaimed that it was a true non-fiction. Initially, though, the cameraman had only filmed Dr. Whang’s leg because he did not have the courage to receive permission from Whang to film the young female doctor. Contrary to their worries, Dr. Whang willingly allowed the crew to film her fully, and this resulted in the creation of a memorable footage, showing Whang’s life vividly and frankly. This film is still used to be displayed during the awards ceremony of the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award in the Paralympics.
Dr. Whang was always deeply concerned with the issue of sports for the disabled. Her concern largely derived from her personal experience of receiving low grades in physical education in high school.
“My grade point average was always diminished due to my low physical education grades,” Dr. Whang recalled. “It was so frustrating and unfair.”
Such frustration and deprivation propelled Dr. Whang to establish “Jeongnip Heogwan,” the first social welfare center for the disabled. The center conducts various businesses for the physically challenged, and it provides a swimming center as well. The name Jeongnip means standing straight in Chinese characters.
“Jeongnip signifies that although I walk with a limp, my mind stands upright,” Dr. Whang explained. “In addition, as one cannot stand without conviction, Jeongnip also expresses the resolution to act with it.”
Dr. Whang continuously strived for the betterment of the disabled in numerous fields such as sports, welfare and employment. One of the most notable and worthwhile accomplishment, though, was resolving the issue of unfairly rejecting students with polio in admission to medical colleges.
Some medical schools had rejected these students who could not walk properly at the stage of face-to-face interviews. The reason for the rejection was that doctors need to do physical labor and sometimes have to run in urgent situations.
“The explanation itself may be true, but it does not apply to students who study medical science academically,” Dr. Whang asserted. “Such practical difficulties on the field can be adjusted later on when deciding departments, so it does not make any sense to reject these students at the level of admission. Just look at my leg, for instance!”
In 1988, at the Seoul Paralympic Games, the International Paralympic Committee founded the “Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award” as a “Prize for the Triumph of the Human Spirit,” recognizing Dr. Whang’s ardent efforts and contribution in Paralympic sports. The award survived some initial arguments and objection as to whether or not to continue this award even after the Seoul Paralympics, and it is still granted today. Nowadays, the award is internationally respected, and at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, it became an official event for the closing ceremony.
“I think the award implies more meaning as it signifies Whang Youn-dai, an individual rather than one particular country or race,” Dr. Whang commented. “It gives hope to the other disabled people that Whang as one physically challenged person has succeeded in going through a difficult path. It shows they can accomplish whatever they want.”
As Dr. Whang travels around the world for the Paralympics and the award, she experiences different moments of being moved and touched according to each nation. She especially remembers her trip to London, where the 80 thousand seats for the Paralympic Games were sold out. There was also a mother who brought along her teenage son with the intelligence of a child.
“Many people would not bring out such disabled children to large, public events,” Dr. Whang said. “So I told her she is an excellent mother for giving her son a chance to attend this big event. My sincerity was delivered to her, and we embraced and understood each other. I saw tears rolling down her glasses.”
Dr. Whang delivers the message that people can achieve a lot despite various obstacles and hindrances.
“Physical defects, rebukes and criticism, comparison – all of these seemingly-negative elements can turn into favorable plus factors,” Dr. Whang remarked. “They can stimulate you and become the opportunity to challenge yourself.”