Kim Hun-yong’s home for the past two years had been filled with appliances that he struggled to use. His electronics were sleek and modern, but Kim, who is blind, had to resort to DIY workarounds to use his devices. He bypassed the touchscreen combination lock on his apartment door, using a magnetic swipe card. His parents had applied stickers with raised dots over some of his washing machine’s settings. Charred strips of electrical tape outlined the burners beneath the glass surface of his induction stove. Kim said he didn’t feel safe even boiling water for ramen.

These kinds of products make people who are blind feel “more disabled,” said Kim, who teaches English at a Seoul elementary school. “The blind should at least be able to live comfortably and easily inside their homes,” he told Rest of World. “There are so many barriers already. … You don’t need any more.”

In a country that is home to some of the world’s largest and most innovative technology companies, Kim said that there is no good reason that people with a visual impairment should be excluded from using their products to their full potential. Samsung and LG, conglomerates known as chaebol in Korean, make their products with “world-class-level technology,” he said, “but their consideration about accessibility is really at its infancy.” 

In March, Kim filed a petition with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK), a government watchdog agency, alleging that Samsung and LG have violated the rights of blind consumers. He is one individual in a community of blind Koreans who are fighting the chaebol for digital equality through activism and litigation. They claim that inaccessible design prevents them from using the devices, apps, and websites of some of the country’s wealthiest companies. As technology becomes more integrated into every aspect of daily life — Samsung and LG are both working on smart city projects with the South Korean government — that lack of accessibility becomes more and more exclusionary. If they are successful, the impact could be felt well beyond the local market. Winning on the home turf of global brands could force them to integrate inclusive design into their products worldwide.

“Maybe it’s our responsibility, [as] South Korea’s blind, to make [these products] accessible,” Kim said. “So every blind person in the world can benefit from them.”

Kim is a serial activist. As a university student, he protested against efforts to do away with a law that grants an exclusive right to Korea’s approximately 250,000-strong visually impaired population to work as massage therapists (he is a licensed masseur). Two years ago, Kim helped found a union for other teachers with disabilities. His complaint to the NHRCK against Samsung and LG was born out of a series of “frustrating” experiences that he said left him feeling “angry and sad.”

After nearly two years of living on his own in his inaccessible rental unit, Kim and his long-term girlfriend have just moved into a new apartment together. They splurged on high-end devices, including a refrigerator, washer, and stove. Kim had planned to purchase smart appliances that could speak aloud the information that appears on touchscreen interfaces, or be controlled with an app that he could access with his smartphone’s screen reader — an assistive utility that turns text into speech and enables blind users to navigate apps and the internet. But just finding products that met his needs was harder than he had anticipated.

Even though Samsung corners the local cellular market, Kim’s preferred mobile device is an iPhone, which he said makes him feel “powerful,” thanks to Apple’s VoiceOver feature and other accessibility apps for people with a visual disability. 

Kim said neither Samsung nor LG provide adequate online resources about which of their household products can be paired with, or even include, adaptive technology for people with visual impairments. When he went to the companies’ brick-and-mortar stores in Seoul, he said employees “had no idea” what he was talking about. He was not allowed to connect his smartphone to the display models to check their compatibility. Sales clerks suggested the couple buy older home appliances with buttons instead, so that Kim could manually operate the machines. 

People with disabilities aren’t “second-class citizens,” he said, explaining that, just because he cannot see, doesn’t mean he should be prevented from using “beautiful,” well-designed products. “I have a right to use them; we shouldn’t be forced to buy cheaper ones,” Kim said. 

With time running out, the couple took a chance and dropped around $15,000 on electronics that Kim still didn’t know if he’d be able to independently use. 

Kim wrote about his ordeal on Facebook and said many of his visually impaired friends recalled their own similar situations. He submitted his grievances to the NHRCK via its online portal. The agency sent him a case number, and an investigator interviewed him over the phone. Kim awaits their decision.

Lee Soo-ji, an NHRCK official, told Rest of World that investigations are confidential, and  it could take a “long time” to release their findings. 

The NHRCK doesn’t have the power to impose penalties or enact new regulations. It can only make recommendations to the National Assembly and issue public statements. However, the commission’s suggestions could prompt lawmakers to take legislative action, or at least serve as a kind of public shaming.

Kim is confident that the agency will agree that Samsung and LG infringed upon his rights under Korea’s 2007 Anti-Discrimination Against and Remedies for Persons with Disabilities Act, in part because the law was recently put to the test in a case that pitted hundreds of visually impaired home shoppers against three local retail giants, Gmarket, Lotte, and Emart.

The plaintiffs brought the suit because, they said, the sites often had no accommodation for visually impaired people.

“Sometimes, when I’d shop online, only images of the items appeared,” said one of the plaintiffs, a 41-year-old stay-at-home mom from Incheon. Her lawyer, Kim Jae-hwan, whom she was seated next to during the interview, advised that she reveal only her surname, Cho. When a listing on an e-commerce site only had a photograph, she needed to send the product’s link to a sighted friend, since her husband also had a low-vision impairment. “But there were times that I accidentally bought the wrong thing and that made me really mad,” she said. 

Online shopping has become an essential part of South Korean daily life, particularly during the pandemic. The country has the fifth-largest e-commerce market in the world, despite being the 10th-largest economy. E-commerce sales reached $104 billion in 2020, up nearly 20% from the previous year, according to the Korea SMEs and Startups Agency, a government-funded body.

“I didn’t even consider that blind people shop online, before I started this case,” Kim Jae-hwan, Cho’s lawyer, said at his firm’s office in Seoul. In 2017, he recruited blind plaintiffs from an online forum for people with disabilities to join the lawsuit. This was a gamble, since private businesses had never been held legally accountable for making their websites accessible. The attorney was upfront about his motivations for launching the suit against these three companies: They had deep pockets.

In a landmark decision, the plaintiffs won. In February, a Seoul district judge ruled that the online shopping platforms discriminated against screen reader users because the assistive technology cannot access product information if it is printed over images. The court gave the companies six months to ensure that their websites were accessible for the blind and ordered that they pay each of the 963 plaintiffs around $90 (100,000 Korean won) in compensation. The corporations appealed the verdict. They did not respond to requests for comment. 

Kim, the lawyer, predicts that this case could eventually end up in front of South Korea’s Supreme Court and could set a precedent for similar lawsuits to come.       

This victory was a “starting point” to help bring down digital barriers, according to Seo Won-sun, a researcher at the Korea Disabled People’s Development Institute. However, it only chips away at “huge social barriers,” like employment discrimination, which prevents people with a visual impairment from landing more tech sector jobs, where they could influence product design, he said.

This demographic has long been seen as a charity case, Seo explained. Blind people are not encouraged to live independently, and there’s no expectation that they would want or be able to use shopping sites or electronics without help from a sighted person.  

Seo, who is blind, suspects that Korean multinationals, like Samsung and LG, “don’t care” about making their products accessible for domestic consumers with a visual disability, since they account for such a small share of the global market. And penalties under the Disabilities Act aren’t strong enough to scare corporations to proactively ensure that their devices can be used by differently abled people, he added.  

In a statement emailed to Rest of World, an official at Samsung Electronics, who asked not to be named, per Samsung policy, said that all the company’s products are built with a philosophy that “recognizes diversity and embraces differences,” and that they are working with groups that support people with visual impairments in the U.S. and U.K. to improve accessibility.

A spokesperson from LG Electronics sent a link to an April 9 press release, which states that the company is “committing to making its home appliances more accessible to the physically challenged.” Starting this year, some products will include audio instructions and Braille overlays. 

Covering touch screen control panels with Braille stickers isn’t the solution, but for now it’s “better than nothing,” said Han Hye-kyung, a 24-year-old university student who this April launched the nonprofit Digital Sigak Jangae Yeondae (Digital Blind Rights). Electronics makers, like LG, should instead strive to incorporate universal design into their products so they can be used by consumers of all abilities and ages, she said.

For example, Han said her rice cooker, made by the local company Cuckoo, has built-in voice announcements that are not just for blind users. However, some of the features that LG is rolling out — like buttons on a laundry machine that play specific musical notes to indicate different functions — “don’t make sense” unless the user can tell the difference between an A and a D, she said.

While Samsung has won praise from the London-based Royal National Institute of Blind People for its line of smart television sets, advocates regard Apple as one of the most accessibility-minded tech makers, partly due to its inclusion of blind developers in its design process. 

Han cautions against using lawsuits to force companies to pay more attention to accessibility. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for users with visual impairments, and establishing better lines of communication with the chaebol could help them understand the specific issues faced by their users. That assumes that they’re willing to listen. And if they don’t, “Then we have the right to sue them,” she said.  

As moving day at the end of May approached for Kim, his anxiety rose as he worried about all the appliances he and his partner had bought. Being able to use them, he said, would make a “huge” difference in his life. Kim imagines one day inviting friends over for samgyupsal, or grilled pork belly, that he hopes to be able to cook in his new, accessible kitchen. 

So far, the new electronics are working out “better than expected,” he said, but there’s still room for improvement.

He said he has mixed feelings about calling out LG and Samsung, businesses that he takes “pride in” as a Korean for their global prowess. He wants the chaebol to know that his complaints aren’t out of hate: It’s just tough love.   

“I hope they understand,” he said. “I want to make them better.”