(Yonhap Feature) New opportunities for the blind arise out of uncertainty
By Jason Strother
SEOUL, Feb. 27 (Yonhap) -- Park Gwang-jae's hands are firm and strong. He's crouched over a client lying face down on the matted floor of his massage parlor. Park digs his fingers into the man's shoulders and back, hitting pressure points and relieving tension. At age 49, Park has been an "anma-sa," a masseur, for more than half his life, but that wasn't always his plan.
When Park was a teenager he lost his vision due to a connective tissue disorder that caused his retinas to detach. No surgery was able to restore his sight and at age 20, Park entered a school for the blind.
"Massage was the only vocational training available at the blind school," Park says in his shop located near Ewha Womans University in western Seoul.
Park does not consider this lack of career options to be a bad thing. He says the blind are best suited for the industry.
"When one sense is damaged, other senses become more developed," he says. "The blind have a better sense of touch and this allows us to focus on what people need for their bodies."
Masseur Park Gwang-jae works on a client's back at his shop (All photos courtesy of Jason Strother)
Park is one of about 8,000 legally blind licensed masseurs in South Korea. In fact, they have a constitutionally protected right to be the only people allowed to practice massage, a privilege that was first given to Korea's blind by Japan during their early 20th century rule of the peninsula. But these days, it's a privilege that the visually impaired aren't taking for granted.
Since 2003, sighted, unlicensed masseurs have filed lawsuits claiming that the constitutional right is discriminatory. In 2006, the nation's highest court ruled in favor of the sighted, which set off weeks of protests by the blind, even leading some to take their own lives. The National Assembly later passed a bill ensuring the blind would be protected despite the Constitutional Court's verdict. The sighted masseurs challenged that law again in 2008, though they were unsuccessful. And now judges will once again need to decide whether protecting a minority takes precedence over ensuring equality for the majority.
"Without the guarantee, many of Korea's blind could easily slip into poverty," says Na Eun-moon, a massage teacher at the Korean Blind Masseurs Association. "Massage is still the best and only way for the blind to survive."
Na says blind masseurs can earn up to 3 million won (US$2,668) a month, a salary higher than the national average for a sighted worker. These high wages are the main reason that massage is an attractive career for the visually impaired.
But the infiltration into the industry by sighted masseurs that work at sports or skin massage centers as well as jimjilbangs and saunas are taking work away from the blind and reducing salaries to half of what they were a decade ago.
"The situation is rapidly changing," says Choi Dong-ik, president of the Korea Blind Union.
Choi says whether or not massage remains a constitutionally protected occupation for the blind, this downward trend in earnings will continue. But these types of crises often produce new opportunities.
"This is a very big moment to develop new jobs," Choi says. "These days the massage jobs don't make that much money. If it brought in a higher income, then it would be harder to develop other job fields."
Choi says there are plenty of career options that would seem like obvious choices for the visually impaired aside from massage. He already owns a repair shop where he has hired several blind employees to fix, clean and test headphones used onboard commercial airlines. Next year the Blind Union will start training programs for quality control jobs, such as checking the sound of televisions or car stereos.
But Choi says there are still roughly 15,000 employable, legally blind people that cannot find enough work to earn a living, and there needs to be training for them to work in more mainstream companies as well. Choi says Korea's numerous coffee shops could be ideal employers.
Cafe More is located in southern Seoul and is probably the only of its kind to have a Braille menu. Operated by the Blind Union and a recipient of government funding, the cafe is part of a barista training program that has so far hired five legally blind staff.
Lee Seong-ju, 30, has a third degree visual impairment and has worked at Cafe More for two years. She says compared with massage, this job is a much better option for her.
"It's not really so easy for a woman to get a massage job and I just wasn't interested to work in that industry," she says. "I really enjoy the smell of coffee and I enjoy serving coffee to my customers."
Lee adds that too many of Korea's blind only look for work as masseurs and she thinks if she can do this job, others can, too.
In the basement of an adjacent building, six barista trainees are taking turns on espresso machines, making cafe lattes, cappuccinos and caramel macchiatos.
The work does present some challenges, says Song Seon-mae as she finishes foaming some milk for a latte.
"It was difficult judging the water levels in the machines we use for steaming, but I've gotten the hang of it, I know now how to feel it or even hear how it is," says the 40-year-old who for the past two decades has worked as a masseur. "I wanted to study something new, so I've moved on from working with the body to the mouth.”
But Song says that once her training is over, that's when the real difficulties will begin. While Cafe More will hire blind employees, convincing bosses at other cafes to do so will not be easy.
Staff at Cafe More, a coffee shop that employs the legally blind
Barista trainee Song Seon-mae learns to use an espresso machine
"They will really need to have an open mind," Song says.
South Korean society still has a way to go, remarks Choi Dong-ik. He says the Blind Union is hoping to find investors to open other Cafe More franchises. All branches would have a policy of hiring the legally blind who have completed the barista training program.
Blind masseur Park Gwang-jae agrees that it's time for the blind to start learning other professions. But he says over the years he's seen various occupational programs come and go. For him, there is still only one sure thing.
"I am really worried about losing the constitutional protection for massage. If this right is lost, the blind will lose everything."