The Last of Taiwan's 'Blind Masseurs'

Photo Credit: Shannon Lin/The News Lens
Why you need to know

'Blind massage' was first introduced to Taiwan by the Japanese during the colonial era. More than 100 years later, signs for blind massage parlors remain a common sight in the underground malls and streets of Taiwan but the number of masseurs is declining.

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“I typically start my sessions with the neck and shoulders. Modern day workers sit behind a desk all day so their upper back area tends to be really stiff,” says Lai Jun-hong (賴俊宏), a masseuse in Taipei’s Banqiao district.

“Behind the earlobes, there is a pressure point known as the ‘Gates of Consciousness.’ If you massage here, you can relieve headaches and eye irritability. Many of my patrons suffer from chronic neck and shoulder pains. Some consider surgery but I always try to discourage them. One wrong move and you could lose something important like I did with my eyesight.”

Born with visual complications, Lai, 25, lost most of his sight after a botched operation shortly after birth. Though he is partially sighted and can still read enlarged print, Lai is legally blind. He is one of 57,000 Taiwanese with a visual disability and one of a dwindling number of “blind masseurs,” an occupation that until recently was reserved for the visually impaired.

"Blind massage" was first introduced to Taiwan by the Japanese during the colonial era. One hundred years later, signs for blind massage parlors remain a common sight in the underground malls and streets of Taiwan. However, National Chung Cheng University sociology professor Wang Kuo-yu (王國羽) says fewer visually impaired people are entering the profession today as discrimination against disabled people slowly ebbs and their labor rights improve.

“People are more open now than they were 30 years ago,” she says of Taiwanese society.

During the 50-year Japanese occupation of Taiwan, "blind massage" was usually a night practice; masseurs would peddle the streets, signaling their arrival by playing instruments such as the flute. Both massage therapy and musical talent became traits people associated with the visually impaired community. People with visual disabilities were sought by the Japanese because it was believed their lack of sight also meant a lack of libido. Training people with visual disabilities to become masseurs also meant an opportunity for them to play a bigger role in society and gain a degree of economic independence. Taiwan's first school for the visually impaired was opened in 1917 in Taipei. Originally known as the Kimura Blind and Deaf School, students with visual impairments were trained in alternative forms of therapy such as acupuncture and massage.

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Photo Credit: Shannon Lin/The News Lens
Li massaging the “Gates of Consciousness” pressure points.
The rise and fall of blind massage

Massage eventually progressed from a skill tailored to the blind, to a legally-designated occupation for the entire visually impaired community, pigeonholing generations to a narrow set of opportunities.

In 1997, 17 years after the passing of Taiwan's initial Disabled Protection Law, an amendment was added that reserved the classification of massage as an exclusive occupation for people with visual impairments. Others who wished to enter the profession could only do so if they obtained a medical treatment license.

“For a long time, becoming a blind masseuse was the main occupation for those with visual impairments, that is until 15 years ago when the younger generation emerged,” says Wang. “Massage therapy itself is labor intensive and young people [today] don’t want to be limited to just one profession.”

In July 2009, the 1997 amendment was overturned, allowing anyone to enter the industry. Since then, blind masseurs have had to compete with massage parlors of all kinds. To boost employment opportunities for people with disabilities, labor officials imposed a hiring quota for government and companies. Public institutions are required to have at least three percent of employees with disabilities; private institutions must meet at least one percent. If the quota is not met, a fine of about NT$17,000 (US$500) is levied for every "missing" employee.

To incentivize employers, monthly subsidies of up to NT$12,000 (US$400) are granted to companies that hire and train employee with disabilities. Companies which employ more than three people with disabilities within three months are entitled to receive up to NT$6,000 (US$200) per employee each month. The subsidies often continue for more than one year after a person is employed.

However, Wang, who has followed the disability rights movement since the 1980s, says the removal of the legal protection for blind masseurs was met with feelings of insecurity, particularly among the older generation of visually impaired.

"They were trained to believe this is the only thing they are able to do," she says. "If you take away their protection, you take away their only source of income. They don’t know any other jobs. They don’t know how to survive.”

The long-held policy of reserving massage work for the blind also engrained a stigma among Taiwanese as to the contribution visually impaired could make to society.

“The only thing people think about when they think of [people with visual disabilities] is that they are masseurs.

Diversifying

Dream Liu (劉怡君), vice director of the Taiwan Foundation for the Blind, says Taiwanese with visual impairments were for years given only two options: become a masseuse or a musician.

“Usually people with visual disabilities need to rely on their other senses, therefore they tend to develop stronger hearing or tactile skills,” says Liu. "Thus, many people believe that people with vision impairments are the perfect candidates for massage work and, or anything music related."

The organization focuses on helping people acclimate to their visual disabilities, rather than investing in research for new technologies or treatments. Professionals from fields of ophthalmology, optometry, and social welfare help to improve the quality of life through mobility training, reading and learning assistance, computer skill development, and career counseling.

Liu has been with the foundation for more than ten years. In her time there, she has worked with many children with visual impairments who have gone on to work for the foundation. Tsai Han-zong (蔡翰宗), 27, is one of them. A computer teacher, Tsai and his family seeked the assistance of the foundation when he entered elementary school. While most students with disabilities attend specialized schools, Tsai insisted on being a “normal student.”

After graduating from the New Taipei Municipal San Chong High School, Tsai studied psychology at Fu Jen Catholic University. It was then when he established a personal relationship with the foundation. The foundation provided Tsai with logistical support, helping him to map out the safest route to and from class and notifying professors of Tsai’s learning capabilities.

“At first, I felt I would be a burden if asked for their help, but then I realized I really can’t do things all by myself,” Tsai says.

“Working for the foundation after I graduated only felt natural and safe. Besides, my parents wanted me to find a profession other than massage work. They wanted me to be a civil servant because they thought the income would be more stable.”

According to 2014 statistics from the Ministry of Interior, the average monthly income for people with disabilities is NT$23,500 (US$780) compared to the national average income of NT$43,700 (US$1,450).

Tsai earns around NT$26,000 (around US$860) a month; Lai earns about NT$30,000 (around US$990) a month. Lai believes the government should offer more protective labor laws for people like him.

“When I was younger, I dreamed of becoming a pilot or a race car driver but it became apparent very early on that my dreams were not realistic. There are a limited number of occupations for [people with visual disabilities] so I wish politicians would take us into consideration when writing laws,” Lai says.

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Photo Credit: Shannon Lin/The News Lens
Tsai at work where he teaches people with visual disabilities how to use computers.
Not a ‘charity case’

Despite the lack of employment security today, Lai insists that being a masseuse is still a profitable occupation and he does not wish to be categorized as a “charity case” because of other people’s assumptions. To maintain his autonomy, Lai refuses to seek the help of charities and organizations because he can “manage himself.”

“Some people automatically assume blind people are of lower cognitive abilities because of our lack of sight but the truth is that we can do anything despite our limited options. It’s all about the mindset,” says Lai.

For Tsai, his lack of vision has led to him to rely on his aural abilities which he has honed to a remarkable degree. Carrying a white cane, Tsai can maneuver his way around the congested streets near Taipei Main Station where the foundation offices are located. He takes public transport to and from work and knows exactly which bus has arrived simply by listening to the sounds of the bus pulling into the stop.

“Because I received musical training when I was younger, I have perfect pitch so just by listening to any sound, I can assess its tone, its frequency and can determine what hertz it is and where the sound source is,” he says.

With this adroit skill, Tsai is able to live and function independently, challenging the idea that people with disabilities are always dependent on others.

Lai wants people to understand that he and others like him are capable of being autonomous. Although he took the path of a masseuse, he chose to stay in this line of work because he found contentment in his profession.

“Whenever I see the outline of my patron’s face after a session and I can make out that they are at ease, I know I have done my job and I am satisfied,” he says.

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Photo Credit: Shannon Lin/The News Lens
Lai demonstrating how he uses a regular phone.
Job discrimination

Although both Lai and Tsai have found suitable vocations and say they have not experienced "ableism," job discrimination against people with disabilities is still prevalent in Taiwanese society. In Taiwan, which has a population of 23.5 million, there are more than 1.1 million people with disabilities and those with visual impairments are “the most discriminated against,” says Liu.

“Employers more often than not, focus on what the visually impaired cannot do rather than what they can. They assume that people with visual impairments can’t function ‘normally’ so they immediately reject their application because they don’t want a liability,” Liu says.

Statistics from the Ministry of Interior show that in 2014, nearly 200,000 people with disabilities contributed to the labor force, a participation rate of nearly 20 percent. Fourteen percent of all people with disabilities believed they were subject to unfair treatment.

“The difference between vision and lack thereof is huge,” says Liu. “People think that if a person lacks the ability to see, they can’t do anything but with proper training, people with visual disabilities can be very independent. Taiwan may have many highly intelligent, well-educated people but we lack in social education.”

Liu points to a phone call she received from a startup involved with communication technology for people with visual impairments. The app developers were interested in understanding the needs of the visual disability community but their attempts, according to Liu, were “misguided.”

“This company wanted to know how people with visual disabilities used phones. I told them that people with visual disabilities can use an iPhone just like everyone else. They were speechless. It’s amazing how people who have obtained high academic degrees could be so ignorant.”

Both Tsai and Lai use pre-installed features on their smartphones such intelligent personal assistants and screen readers – software that reads aloud the text on a screen, including the phone's navigation buttons and chat timestamps. Android devices use Google Talkback while Apple iOS devices have VoiceOver; both are built-in functions. Neither Lai nor Tsai have downloaded other apps specifically designed for the visually impaired.

The attitude of the app developers, according to Wang, shows that despite their “good intent” many people still are viewed through the lens of their disabilities, and seeing impairments as medical abnormalities that need to be fixed rather than embraced.

“We do things for [people with disabilities] because we pity them and we as a society want to show our compassion by enforcing laws that look good on paper and developing assistive technologies,” says Wang.

She believes society should recognize that there are barriers that prevent people with disabilities from actively participating in broader society rather than excluding an individual because of their impairment.

“[The previous generation] grew up in a society with a limited imagination towards people with disabilities. They grew up in a society where disability was a shameful deformity. Now 30 years later, people are fighting to become visible and that’s what we should try to understand.”

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Photo Credit: Shannon Lin/The News Lens
A braille display that generates braille translations of computer screens so Tsai can instantly access his emails and the websites.
Different career paths

In his early 40s, Li Zhen-xiang (李鎮湘) began noticing his myopia worsening. At 44, he received laser eye surgery which eventually led to partial blindness. From 46 to 48, Li attended a local school for the visually impaired where he was trained in massage therapy. Now 51, Li is a part-time masseuse at a parlor in Taipei.

“To me, this is just something I like to do for fun. I previously worked in the tea industry but had to stop after my vision worsened," he says. "Because I have the financial background to support myself, I can work as a masseuse as my side job. I am helping people improve their health but it only earns me around NT$2,000 (US$66) per day. Pocket money."

Although Li does not see being a masseuse as a “shameful” profession, he does think that young people with disabilities today are lucky to have more options than previous generations.

While Li and Tsai do not see massage a “serious” career path, but Lai still sees a future for himself in this line of work.

Lai dreams of one day opening his own massage parlor in a building that he owns himself.

He says this may be but a “silly little fantasy” but it uplifts him after a rough day. No matter what the future holds, Lai says he will maintain his independence.

“I am a fully capable person. [Working as a masseuse] has proved to be a stable profession so I am going to continue until the day I can hopefully buy my own home and raise a family. What every young person dreams about basically.”

When asked if he regrets undergoing operation, Lai shrugs and says, “I can’t change my situation but at least I [can still see]. Most importantly, I have a job to support myself.”

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Photo Credit: Shannon Lin/The News Lens
Li massaging the neck area which he says is more sensitive for men.

Editor: Edward White

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