By the time Lee Hye-gyeong received a diagnosis of glaucoma in 2005, she had already lost much of her vision. By now, Lee, a former shop assistant, can see only shapeless colors as she fumbles through Seoul’s crowded subway.
Still, for the past year and a half, commuting has been part of her daily routine. She awakens at 5:30am, cooks breakfast for her husband and two teenage sons and then takes the subway to a government-run school. There, Lee, 42, trains for the one job that for most of the past century has been reserved exclusively for the legally blind: masseur.
But lately she fears her prospects in this new profession could be threatened. Sighted people working as unlicensed masseurs have asked the Constitutional Court of South Korea to throw out a law that allows only the legally blind to become professional masseurs. They contend that the law violates their right to employment. A ruling could come as soon as next week.
Passions are intense on both sides of the debate over whether to preserve the restriction. Three people have died in protests over who is permitted to practice the trade.
Lee is concerned that the law might change and, with it, her chances for employment.
“Massage is the only job we blind can do,” she said. “In the name of free competition, they are trying to take away our right to survive.”
Japanese colonialists in 1913 introduced to Korea the idea of reserving the role of masseurs solely for the blind. The prohibition against people with healthy sight was abolished in 1946 by the US military government but later reinstated in 1963. In a country where prejudice and a lack of official support have long restricted opportunities for the disabled, the blind have fiercely defended their exclusive right to the business.
About 7,100 legally blind people work in about 1,000 massage parlors in South Korea, and they are the only legally registered masseurs in the country. But they can hardly meet the demand, so tens of thousands of so-called sports massage centers, skin-care salons, barbershops, hotels and public bath houses employ sighted, but illegal, massage workers. Estimates of their number range from 150,000 to 700,000.
National sports teams hire masseurs with healthy vision. During the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, the government offered free massage training to the unemployed, regardless of the state of their eyesight.
“Every bride gets a full-body massage before her wedding, nearly always from unlicensed masseurs,” said Park Yoon-soo, president of the Massager Association of Korea, which is leading the legal challenge to the law. “This shows how absurd the law is.”
Members of Park’s association, which represents 120,000 unlicensed masseurs, are working openly and in defiance of the law. His office keeps a growing file of members who have been accused of practicing without a license. Those people are usually fined, with the fines ranging from US$450 to US$4,500, although the law calls for up to three years in prison.
“It breaks my heart when I think that what I am doing every day, what I consider my calling, is a crime,” said Park, whose strong fingers have kneaded the backs of numerous politicians and celebrities over the past 25 years.
“We are not trying to steal jobs from the blind. We just want to share the market. We want to live as normal citizens, not as criminals,” he said.