Seeing Hands Around the World

Ability Beyond Sight invested resources in a worldwide campaign pursuing successful occupational training models within the wellness industry; specifically, Ability Beyond Sight sought models that have successfully led blind young adults to economic empowerment and effective participation in society. This campaign also included careful analysis of labor market statistics and inclusion of blind people in the wellness industry.

Ability Beyond Sight identified one style that transcends national borders: blind massage, carried out by visually disabled masseuses and masseurs making use of their “seeing hands.” For centuries, other countries such as China and Japan have long recognized the abilities and enhanced sense of touch of blind individuals in the field of massage therapy, and have devoted training for such individuals.  All the traditional learning tools are available with modifications, such as mannequins, never and muscle charts, maps of the body with organ names and acupuncture points in Braille.  The charts, maps and mannequins are all covered in different textures of sandpaper, cloth, rope and wood to help the blind students navigate by hand alone. 

One of the many interesting facts researchers know about the blind is that in many cases, their brains reroute senso ry inputs to other parts of the brain in order to compensate for their blindness.  These results are a kind of extra-sensory-perception, often in the areas of smell, taste and touch.   As anyone who has ever had a professional massage knows, it’s all about touch and the symbiotic relationship formed between the massage therapist and client.   The truth is blind individuals are an incredible resource of untapped potential and one field in which they have been trained and continue to train worldwide is massage therapy and are proving to be gifted in art and science of massage therapy.

Seeing Hands - a new profession for the blind in Nepal 

Blind people have always preferred ‘hands on’ professions, and in Asia, the tradition of the blind masseur is centuries old. Early texts indicate that blind people in China, Japan and Korea have been formally trained in therapeutic massage and acupuncture since medieval times and over 50,000 blind or visually impaired masseurs now earn a living in the Asia-Pacific region

In South Korea, a law passed in 1987 actually states that the profession of massage is reserved for the blind, (preventing sighted people from learning the trade), but a recent ruling by the courts threatens to end this exclusive right. 6,500 registered blind and visually impaired masseurs currently work in South Korea but prejudice still restricts jobs for the blind in other professions.  In protest against the new rulings, one blind masseur has already thrown himself from a high rise building and two others have jumped onto the tracks of a Seoul subway station.

Blind Massages of Southeast Asia 

In a region where state financial support for people with disabilities is very rare, massage gives blind people a highly valued and specialized role in society, and provides them with the means to make a living. Massage schools and associations specifically for blind people exist across Southeast Asia, offering training, a way into employment and a community.

In Cambodia, The Association for the blind trains masseurs, and in Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, they operate businesses under the name Seeing Hands, specializing in blind massage.

The National Council for the Blind in Malaysia offers blind massage with a list of traditional blind masseurs on its website 

In Indonesia, blind massage is called "pijat tuna netra" and small signs for these blind massage clinics can be found across the region.  Blind men and women are trained from a young age as masseurs and masseuses at institutions that often operate as charities, with the result that massage has become the most common profession for blind people in Indonesia. 

In Laos, blind massage is a more recent phenomenon, with the first training centre opening in 2003.  Now there are around 25 massage clinics in the capital city, Vientiane, operated by Lao Association of the Blind (LAB).

The Vietnam Blind Association trains masseurs and masseuses in Vietnam, with nearly 100 clinics currently in operation, providing employment for around 1,000 visually disabled people. 

Blind massage clinics are found across Thailand, including The Thai Blind Massage Conservation Club in Chiang Mai, The Thai Blind Massage Institute (TBMI) in Pattaya, and the Foundation for the Employment Promotion of the Blind in Bangkok. Singapore offers the Miracle Traditional Blind Massage Centre on Orchard Road.

Blind massage varies according to the country, and often bears similarities to the area’s own local massage style. In general, however, blind massage has a reputation for being quite heavy, good for getting rid of any aches from bumping along Southeast Asian roads and, after the initial pain, your body will feel renewed and refreshed. Expect a professionally trained masseur or masseuse providing a specialized service using “seeing hands” to offer relief for tired, stressed bodies.

Massage is inexpensive across Southeast Asia which means you can enjoy a whole hour for only a few dollars. By supporting the blind massage business you are supporting the local, visually disabled community and giving your body some well-deserved rehab at the same time.

Blind faith: How a priest is helping Thailand's sightless win jobs

Defying the belief that the blind have limited career prospects, one Italian priest has spent the last 30 years training them in everything from massage therapy to judo. Massage therapists at the Nonthaburi Skills Development Centre for the Blind are licensed as Doctors of Thai Traditional Massage.

Going through life without vision is hard enough in any country, but in Thailand's' it's a particularly tough battle.  For those who have visited or live in Bangkok, try and recall how many beeping pedestrian-crossing signals you've seen.  Or how many Braille magazines you've spotted at the bookstore.  Even worse, how many times have you stumbled and cursed your way down a pothole-ridden sidewalk?  Our guess is, respectively, hardly any, never have and way too often.

Father Carlo Velardo has spent the past 30 years making it a bit easier for the blind to experience healthy and productive lives in Thailand. As director of the Nonthaburi Skills Development Centre for the Blind, his facility is dedicated to not only providing friendship and care to his students, but also giving them the training they need to make a living in a city that can be a challenge even if you aren’t disabled. His school today is a far cry from what it was during those uncertain days. “When I started, the blind were shunned and common perception was that they could only do two things -- sell lottery tickets and be telephone operators. Braille charts are among the many tools used by the school to train blind massage therapists. “

Velardo’s program recently got approval from the Ministry of Public Health to license graduates as Doctors of Thai Traditional Massage, an accolade not easy to come by. Most graduates find work right away and continue to hone their skills over many years. The center, located in north of Bangkok in Nonthaburi’s Pakkred district, sees about 150 customers per day. 

A tour of the training facility gives an insight into the thoroughness of the course. All the traditional learning tools are there -- mannequins, nerve and muscle charts, maps of the body labeled with organ names and acupuncture points -- but all the names are in Braille. The charts, maps and mannequins are all covered in different textures of sandpaper, cloth, rope and wood to help the students navigate by hand alone.

Velardo comes across as a simple man, a priest who is doing his duty not for fortune or glory, but to make a genuine difference. So after all these years of training the blind, what makes him continue?  “Satisfaction at seeing my students join society in a productive way," he says. “That’s all I need.”

Britain’s first massage school for the blind

Britain’s first massage school for the blind opened in 1895, but the suitability of blind people as masseurs was not formally recognized in the UK until 1931, when the training of war-blind veterans in massage and other professions was encouraged and the Association of Certified Blind Masseurs was established.

Blind Spa: In the Land of Massage, the No-eyed Man is King

India is the country with the largest blind population in the world.  Of the nearly 40 million blind individuals across the globe, 15 million of them are Indians.  Shriya Saran, one of India's hottest movie stars states "people who are blind have long been stigmatized and the potential for blind individuals to gain self-confidence and independence as massage therapists is the prefect opportunity" and she is planning to open a spa, exclusively run by blind employees, in Mumbai.