As a young man growing up in South Korea, Young Woo Kang lost his eyesight 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 blind were literally spit on and shunned from society. In fact, the only occupations available to a blind person were as a fortune teller or masseuse.
But Kang refused to accept a fate determined by superstition and prejudice, and he challenged the system. He fought for the opportunity to take the entrance exam to the Korean universities and later successfully lobbied the government to change its rule and allow him to study abroad. Through the support of a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship, he conducted his postgraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh and 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 has become an internationally-renowned disability rights advocate, author, and speaker. His autobiography A Light in My Heart has been translated into seven languages, is a U.S. Library of Congress talking book, and was the basis for television and motion picture movies in South Korea.
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, established in 1995, 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.
In 2002, President George W. Bush nominated Kang 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 Senate confirmed this nomination, and in this capacity, he has worked on issues ranging from the inclusion of people with disabilities in emergency planning to cultural differences and attitudes in empowering people with disabilities.
Kang has earned many honors and awards over the years, including an Honorary Doctorate in Literature from Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea; the Rotary Foundation’s Distinguished Service Award; and the Human Rights Award from Fairfax County (Virginia) Human Rights Commission.
Kang's wife, Kyoung, was a teacher for the visually impaired students in the Gary, Indiana public school system for almost 30 years. His older son, Paul, is a leading ophthalmologist in the Washington, DC area, and his younger son, Christopher, serves as Special Assistant to President Obama for Legislative Affairs. Christopher Kang formerly served as Senior Floor Counsel to Assistant US Senate Democratic Leader Richard Durbin.