Blind masseurs get fashionable image

FRESH APPROACH: A new center offers a trendy treat that is very popular among city-dwellers, doing away with the traditional image of shabby massage parlors

By Debby Wu  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sun, Oct 19, 2003 - Page 4

Ever since Minister of the Interior Yu Cheng-hsien (余政憲) admitted that he had received massages from two unlicensed sighted masseuses, the welfare of blind masseurs has become a topical issue.

In the past blind masseurs have been associated with dark and shabby rooms with rudimentary equipment, usually little more than a simple bed.

But now, when one walks into the Blind Massage Health Center (愛盲護康按摩館) on Minchuan East Road, it feels almost the same as walking into a posh beauty salon.

The center is run by the Cultural and Educational Foundation for the Blind (愛盲文教基金會).

A fashionable aroma permeates the air inside the center, and the relaxing light-brown color scheme is designed with a Zen minimalism calculated to attract the young urban crowd.

Three cloud-like, puffy couches in the reception area encourage visitors to relax and enjoy a good massage.

Besides traditional massages, the center also offers an oil massage, a trendy stress-relieving treat that is very popular among city-dwellers.

"When we opened our first center it did not do that well, because we mainly arranged the shop with the masseurs' convenience in mind, not that of the customers. When we realized that this caused a problem, we decided to prioritize the comfort of customers. We opened this flagship center in April, hoping to compete with the sighted masseurs for business," said Steven Chang (張捷), the center's general manager.

"Although sighted masseurs sometimes offer better facilities, their massage skills cannot compete with ours because the blind masseurs receive long-term training, usually for two years.

"We also provide customers with a complete manual massage, while the massage services in spas and beauty salons usually make use of machines."

Chang said that, unlike the traditional blind massage shops, the center does not offer home services.

"We have this beautiful center, and of course we want people to come and enjoy the nice setting and atmosphere," he said.

The center's smart appearance and the quality service seem to be getting results. Around 700 to 800 massages are performed every month, with customers spending between NT$700 and NT$1,400 for the service.

Chang said it was already difficult for the visually impaired to survive in the competitive job market, and if the government opened up the industry to sighted masseurs, the visually impaired would face a bleak future.

Article 37 of the Disabled Protection Law (身心障礙者保護法), which was passed in 1997, stipulates that only visually impaired people can legally obtain licenses to practice as masseurs. Sighted people can only practice massage as part of medical treatment.

Sighted people started campaigning for the right to work as masseurs after the scandal involving Yu.

Although Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators expressed support for sighted masseurs, they dared not talk about amending the law.

One of the center's masseurs, 45-year-old Chen Lien-tsai (陳連財), said that he was not against opening up the industry to sighted people, as long as the government keeps the interests of the visually impaired in mind.

"We even depend on others to get out of the door -- how can we protest for our rights?" Chen said.

Some lawyers and scholars have argued that reserving the massage industry for the visually impaired violates Article 15 of the Constitution, which protects the rights of all citizens to work.

Chen Chieh-ju (陳潔如), chairwoman of the Parents' Association for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities (智障者家長總會), said that, given the current unemployment rate, the government could not really ensure people's work rights anyway.

"The special law [the Disabled Protection Law] should have priority over the Constitution to protect the rights of disadvantaged people," Chen said.

She said Taiwan has been ignoring the rights of disabled people for a long time, and that there was no other choice except using strict laws to protect their rights.

"I am not completely opposed to opening up the industry, but there has to be very strict and clear regulations on what the sighted masseurs can do, and the law has to be enforced completely to protect the blind masseurs' rights," Chen said.

Besides the Blind Massage Health Center, blind masseurs have set up service points at Taipei municipal hospitals, Taipei Railway Station and the offices of the Taipei City Government. This was achieved with help from the government, to improve the public's access to their services.

At these service points there are usually only a few chairs for the customers, but business is looking good, because customers usually have to queue.

With the help of good marketing concepts, visually impaired masseurs are no longer confined to little shops and can now expand their business.

The Taipei City Council yesterday opened a massage station staffed by blind people, and invited Yu to attend the opening ceremony.

Yu did not show up, but he did send a top-level official to say that the ministry is determined to protect the work rights of visually impaired people.

"We will not open up the massage industry to sighted people while blind people are still not guaranteed comprehensive employment opportunities in society," said Ju-na Chiu (邱汝娜), director of the Department of Social Affairs.

"Currently there are only a little more than 2,400 licensed masseurs, but there is a great demand for massage services in the community, so we will work on improving the professional training for blind people.

"At the same time, we also understand that this is not the only profession blind people can enter. According to our survey, there are now 64 professions with blind employees, but 70 percent to 80 percent of blind people are engaged in the massage business. We will also develop different jobs that are suitable for blind people," Chiu said.

According to figures provided by the Ministry of the Interior, there are about 45,000 blind people in Taiwan, of which 16,000 are old enough to work.

About 6,000 out of them are working, and just more than 2,400 are licensed masseurs.

The Blind Massage Health Center's address is: 5F, 146, Minchuan E Rd. (民權東路二段1465F), which is opposite the renowned Hsingtien Temple (行天宮).

Call (02) 2509-3363 for an appointment.