K-dramas often feel like an escape from the real world. A feel-good break from our everyday life. But these days, Korean series have inched their way into our stone-cold hearts—delivering one heart-wrenching and relatable story to another.
Most of us may have heard about Extraordinary Attorney Woo, a drama revolving around autistic rookie lawyer Woo Youngwoo. Starring Park Eunbin and Kang Taeoh, the series has captured the hearts of audiences and has been at the top of Netflix PH’s TV shows for weeks.
In the eyes of outsiders, Woo Youngwoo’s story is refreshing, unique, and something that seems far from our reality. It’s rare to encounter a lawyer who the exact textbook definition of legal jargon by heart, talks about whales at every chance they get, or struggles to get through a revolving door. The idea of an autistic lawyer itself seems too farfetched that it’s almost seen as an exception.
But it is actually not.
While Woo Youngwoo may be a fictional character, there is one individual who poses as a beacon of hope for people with disabilities to take up space: Haley Moss. The lawyer, contemporary pop artist, and advocate for people with disabilities was diagnosed with autism when she was three years old.
For starters, autism spectrum disorder or autism is a mental disorder that affects a person's communication, behavior, and learning abilities. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) also says people with autism also have trouble making eye contact, conversations, displaying facial expressions, and many more.
This explains why Youngwoo struggles to differentiate one emotion from another and foster good impressions with the people she encounters at work.
Like Youngwoo’s father, Haley’s parents remained “incredibly supportive and wanted me to have the best quality of life possible.” She went on to achieve great heights until becoming the first openly autistic female attorney to be admitted to the Florida bar in January 2019.
“My autism has always given me a profound sense of justice, and I love to read and write and help others,” Haley told PhilSTAR L!fe in an email interview. “Autism is ingrained into who I am, and a lot of that is compatible with the practice and study of law, as well as what lawyers do.”
How Haley sees herself in Youngwoo
With its heartfelt storyline, fluffy love story, and charming leads, the fame of Extraordinary Attorney Woo is no surprise to longtime K-drama fans. But Haley admitted that she’s “always hesitant” about the portrayal of PWDs in mainstream media since “autism is a complex disability with no singular presentation.”
Even so, there’s something about the rawness and vulnerability of Woo Youngwoo that tugged Haley’s heartstrings. Because when you dive into the K-drama, you realize that the extraordinary attorney is just a woman with her own wants, needs, and desires to be seen and heard.
Youngwoo’s almost resignation in the second half of the drama is proof. Without Junho’s encouragement, she would’ve lived the rest of her life believing that “Attorney Woo Youngwoo is the weakest link.”
“A lot of our autistic tendencies are similar. We both get overstimulated by noise and we have unique ways of approaching problems. But we’re both humans,” Haley said. “We have friends, relationships, and we’re both lawyers who care deeply about justice and others. I’d say our morals are most similar.”
Haley hopes Youngwoo’s story is a step towards seeing “an autistic woman and attorney like me represented.” And if she has the chance, she would like to be friends with the female heroine—and she means it “sincerely.”
People with disabilities are human beings too
Kilig and touching scenes aside, Haley believes that Extraordinary Attorney Woo comes down to letting the world know that people with disabilities are no different from normal human beings.
One aspect of the K-drama that comes to Haley’s mind is the romantic relationship between Youngwoo and Junho which she describes as “super understanding and sweet.” Down from the “koong jjak jjak” to the romantic green flag moments.
A lot of our autistic tendencies are similar. We both get overstimulated by noise and we have unique ways of approaching problems. But we’re both humans. We have friends, relationships, and we’re both lawyers who care deeply about justice and others. I’d say our morals are most similar.
“People with disabilities have personal, professional, and romantic relationships too. It’s just harder for autistic people to find these things sometimes. But all of us deserve the same chance to be happy which is why I love Youngwoo and Jun-ho’s relationship,” Haley said.
Another noteworthy part of the K-drama is the bond between Youngwoo and her boss, Attorney Jung Myeongseok. What started as a negative first impression turned into a nurturing bond between mentor and mentee where Attorney Jung learned how to treat his employee like an equal.
Thankfully, Haley is fortunate to be surrounded by colleagues who had “positive first impressions of me.” While her co-workers focused on “the strengths of autism and my problem-solving abilities,” they still “enjoyed my friendship and personality.” Perhaps, her last supervisor being the “father of an autistic son” played a huge role.
A step toward PWD representation
Extraordinary Attorney Woo has truly made a mark in K-drama land, and Haley hopes that it’s a helpful step for people with disabilities to be represented and included in mainstream media. “Kindness and empathy towards autistic people is a great first step, but if we really want to achieve disability justice, it really comes down to listening to what we want.”
“Consult with autistic people and include us. Let us tell our own stories and play active roles in that because so many disabled actors and creatives do not get the opportunities,” Haley added.
People with disabilities have personal, professional, and romantic relationships too. It’s just harder for autistic people to find these things sometimes. But all of us deserve the same chance to be happy.
But apart from showing empathy and kindness, the K-drama comes down to “listening to what [people with disabilities] want” if we’re aiming for a society that promotes “disability justice.”
In fact, Haley notes that “nothing would be off-limits for people with disabilities” as long as we have an open mind, be informed about autism and other conditions, and “give PWDs the right support.”
While the world has made careful steps, she suggested that aside from “making things sensory-friendly,” giving “different [forms of] access [to PWDs] matters.”
“It's about keeping people with disabilities at the forefront of everything we do,” Haley said. “Listening to what we want and need rather than making assumptions, and making it so our conditions aren’t the most disabling thing in our lives.”
Extraordinary Attorney Woo ended on a sweet and hopeful note where Youngwoo told Junho that “cats love their owners,” too. But hopefully, this would be the beginning for PWD representation to take center stage.
“[The K-drama] is moving the needle forward around the world in places that might have a limited or different understanding of autism than we have in the US. From my understanding, autism is much more heavily stigmatized in Korea than in the US, and the show has exposed more people to autism and what autistic people are capable of,” Haley said.
Being the kind-hearted soul that she is, Haley hopes that dreamers with disabilities would explore and nurture their passions like Woo Youngwoo.
“You are perfect as yourself, and you deserve love, respect, opportunity, happiness, and all good things in life. I hope you find peace, self-acceptance, and people who love you for who you are.”