Disability Representation in K-drama “Start-up”

Does the series displayed its disabled character as harmful to others, the community, and society?

Disabled characters in media texts are often created by non-disabled individuals who set preconceived societal notions about what it means to be disabled. It is necessary to increase the evaluation of how disability is portrayed in media text to advance positive portrayals, presence, and participation of disabled people.

I used the critical disability theory as a guide to examine how disability was represented in K-Drama TV series ‘Start-Up,’ examining elements such as the storyline, imagery, language use, and character attitudes, using a social model lens in order to identify disability stereotypes.

The interest to do this comes from the increasing awareness among disabled people that the problems they face are due to institutional discrimination and how media distortions of their realities contribute greatly to the discriminatory process.

Discrimination and the Media

Media has continually been one of the most impactful ways to view our cultural values. How persons with disabilities are represented in the media is often a reflection of how society perceives the concepts of inclusion and their attitudes and feelings towards persons with disabilities.

The prevailing view that persons with disabilities should be isolated outside of society is commonly done by the media, as it also neglects how to best represent all sorts of marginalized groups. For instance, if a disabled person is also a member of one or more marginalized groups, their experience of discrimination will be more complicated and disempowering.

Inherent in our culture is the stereotypical assumptions about persons with disabilities based on superstitions and myths because of how these are continually being reproduced and enhanced by the media. We shape our understanding of disability through the media similar to racist or sexist attitudes acquired through the “normal” learning process alongside negative assumptions about persons with disabilities. Discrimination and lack of understanding are continually being institutionalized in the fabric of our society.

On Inclusion

Inclusion seeks to include persons with disabilities into communities and society by giving them access and availability to services, resources, and spaces. When the media represents persons with disabilities as having skewed thinking or derangement, then the media is being anti-inclusion. For a theme or narrative to be considered anti-inclusion, the result of the inclusion of persons with disabilities will be portrayed as violence to other people or harm to the safety of a community and society.

Unpacking Halmeoni’s Character

Mrs. Choi (Kim Hae-sook) or Halmeoni (elderly woman in Korean), is the grandmother of the lead actress, Dal-mi (Bae Suzy), who took full care of her since she was a kid after her father died in a road accident. Coming from a not well-off background, Halmeoni owns a small corn dog shop to support their living. Later on, given Halmeoni’s old age, she developed a visual impairment that made her lose her sight.

Fig. 1. A regular day in Halmeoni’s corn dog shop.

After analyzing the entire series, I found no portrayal that Halmeoni was harmful to people, community, and society in general. At best, Halmeoni remained to be a crucial character in the development of the main characters in the series. This cruciality, such as having ample dialogue and appearance, is important in positive representation and portrayal because it does not put disabled characters on the sidelines.

Moreover, Halmeoni’s character was not one-dimensional, but a representation of the experiences of disability — one that is often neglected by society. Instead, Halmeoni fully maximized her individuality and personality from being a parent, grandmother, and friend, capable of feeling a variety of emotions such as happiness, sadness, excitement, among others. Her character identity in the series did not change because of her impairment but remained equally part of other non-disabled characters. The character attitudes around Halmeoni were inclusive as the existence of disabled and non-disabled characters were portrayed as equal. More so, the storyline did not adopt any special treatment, even attempts to sensationalize Halmeoni’s impairment, contrary to what popular media would do. Her imagery in the series also reflects the reality that blindness can be a major public health and socioeconomic concern, especially in the elderly in South Korea (Hae Park et. al. 2015).

Fig. 2. Halmeoni in hospital for a checkup of her condition.

The series portrayed a society that still does not substantially address the challenges of persons with disabilities. This was evident in the storyline where there was a lack of resource to address Halmeoni’s impairment as if it was a lost cause (See Fig. 2) — thus, gave Nam Do-san (Nam Joo-hyuk) the idea to develop NoonGil, the mobile application that uses AI technology to help the visually impaired (See Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Nam Do-san proposed to Samsam Tech the mobile application (NoonGil) for the visually impaired.

The series emphasized the role of technology in society by making the lives of persons with disabilities better by making inclusive technologies. However, the series also portrayed a reality that these kinds of technologies do not get enough attention and funding. Creators of such technologies rely on “charity” or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts of companies to get support. This tokenism or symbolic action only shows that the public’s responsibility towards an inclusive society is not fully realized. Without NoonGil, Halmeoni would think that she can not anymore improve her life and accept the status quo because of how society excludes them.

The series also portrayed a society that still pities persons with disabilities. This was evident when Halmeoni asked Nam Do-san to keep her condition a secret to Dal-mi and Han Ji-pyeong (Kim Seon-ho) because she was afraid that they and other people would pity her. Halmeoni refused the common societal notion that if a person has a disability, then they can no longer contribute to society as if they are already useless (See Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Halmeoni shared her fears about her impairment to Nam Do-san.

Instead, Halmeoni continued to live her life to the fullest with the rest of the non-disabled characters in the series. She was not portrayed as a burden, but a positive driving force to the characters around her. For instance, Dal-mi went to be a successful CEO as their start-up continued to scale up, while Halmeoni’s relationship with her other grandchild, In-jae (Kang Han Na), and daughter-in-law, Ah-hyun (Song Seon-mi), were reconciled as they became a complete family again (See Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Halmeoni’s family get-together celebrating their successes.

While the series did not directly tackle the need for policies, it tackled a disabling society we live in by not portraying Halmeoni as “normal” because to claim that persons with disabilities are “normal” but at the same time have to beg for the necessities of life, is contradictory.

Fig. 6. Halmeoni’s daughter-in-law, Ah-hyun, encouraged her to start their corn dog shop again, together. Halmeoni’s partially blind here.

The way the series tackled disability is consistent with the critical disability theory because of how it focused on society and how it shaped disability. The positive portrayal of Halmeoni created new meanings and understandings about persons with disabilities as it challenged the preconceived societal notions embedded in our culture about what it means to be disabled and presented a realistic take on their experiences. The series portrayed the struggles of persons with disabilities in a society that disadvantages them, then they crafted an empowered woman in Halmeoni’s character, capable of self-actualization (See Fig. 6 and 7).

Fig. 7. Halmeoni, partially blind, visited Han Jin-pyeong to check on him.

Positive and critical portrayal happened when the series focused on what society can do to persons with disabilities, and not focus on how they can contribute to society. This puts the idea of public responsibility in creating an inclusive society. When Halmeoni learned about her impairment, she was not miserable, and even if she felt sadness, her support group like her family was there. This portrays the importance of building and enhancing societal foundations that supports marginalized groups with the help of technology.

Accuracy of Portrayal

I used the eleven (11) principles by Barnes (1992) and laid these in a new format to better visualize and understand the accuracy of Halmeoni as a disabled character. View the full report: Click here.

View the full report: Click here


Seo Dal-mi (Bae Suzy)

Indeed, the series is a good example of a positive portrayal of disabled people in the media as it moves away from the common disablist imageries, like how society sees persons with disabilities as mere human commodities with limited capabilities. The series showed that we can not define people based on their limitations, but we should define them based on their strengths and who they are as a whole — forwarding the principles of equality and inclusivity. In doing so, we counter existing cultural beliefs that legitimize inequalities that interrupt justice for marginalized groups. Having this ontological shift allows us to approach disability in new ways that have been long dominated by a medical approach.

Screenshots from the series were used mainly for academic purposes only.

Works Cited

  1. Barnes, Colin. Disabling Imagery and the Media: An Exploration of the Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People. Place of publication not identified: BCODP, 1992. Print.
  2. Oliver, M. (1990) The Politics of Disablement, Basingstoke, Macmillan.
  3. Rioux, M. H. & Valentine, G. (2006). Does theory matter? Exploring the nexus between disability, human rights, and public policy. in Critical disability theory: Essays in philosophy, politics, policy and Law, Dianne Pothier and Richard Devlin, (Eds) 47–69. Vancouver BC: UBC Press.
  4. Shin Hae Park, Ji Sung Lee, Hwan Heo, Young-Woo Suh, Seung-Hyun Kim, Key Hwan Lim, Nam Ju Moon, Sung Jin Lee, Song Hee Park, Seung-Hee Baek, for the Epidemiologic Survey Committee in the Korean Ophthalmological Society; A Nationwide Population-Based Study of Low Vision and Blindness in South Korea. Invest. Ophthalmol. Vis. Sci. 2015;56(1):484–493. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/iovs.14-14909.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Cedric Lee

UXR @ Paymongo (YC S19), UX Mentor @ UX+ University, and prev. UX Team Lead @ Cambridge University Press