by Huong Ly
|Learning the job: Members of the Blind Association in Ha Nam Province attend a massage training course. People with impaired vision are often less distracted and thus focus on the job. — VNA/VNS Photo Nhat Anh|
|Pounding: A member of the Blind Association in former Ha Tay Province massages a customer. — VNA/VNS Photo Tran Tuan|
Therapeutic massage clinics with sight-impaired people are flourishing in big cities. Young blind people are leaving their villages for urban areas to train and get a job as a masseur.
They can massage four or five customers a day and earn more than VND1 million (US$50) a month, many living on the premises and thus avoiding the dangers of getting around in busy streets.
The massage clinics have even drawn the attention of international and local non-governmental organisation as a way to make sight-impaired people more independent.
The trail-blazer in creating massage jobs for blind people was the Blind Association in Thanh Hoa Province. Its 12 members in 1994 were earning livings as manual workers: splitting ice-cream sticks, sewing jute bags and knitting baskets. The work was hard, the wages were low and their lives were difficult.
In that year, Pham Van Quyet, who is now the chairman of the association, hired a sighted person to help him find suitable jobs for the members. The pair visited almost every northern province in Viet Nam to learn about possible business models. But finding jobs suitable for sightless people was not easy. They returned dejected.
But inspiration came to Quyet later, when he was in hospital with a serious disease. He learnt from a back-ache patient about a massage treatment clinic and the idea came to him.
After being discharged, Quyet once again hired a sighted person to take him on tour, this time of massage clinics. There he found that charges for therapeutic massages were encouragingly high and that the job was well within the capabilities of sight-impaired people. Quyet knew blind people could do the job equally as well, if not better, and at a lower fee.
So he reported back to his fellow members and, after overcoming initial difficulties, the massage and sauna service of the Thanh Hoa Blind Association came into operation in 1995, with the full support of local authorities. It co-ordinated with the Thanh Hoa Hospital of traditional medicine whose experts taught techniques to its blind masseurs and masseuses.
Now, the association has up to 150 members working at 21 massage parlours in the city and neighbouring districts, some setting up their own businesses, supported by the association. The members are now self-reliant and filling a need in society.
In 1997, massage parlours received the approval and support of the Viet Nam Blind Association and their growth has gained momentum.
For example, in Vung Tau City, a massage parlour has been in operation by the city's blind association for a year and the association is trying to improve conditions by having the workers live on the premises.
Masseur Vu Van Tu, 22, says: "Before working here, we had to peddle on the streets, which was very dangerous to blind people like us. Now we can feel more secure with this indoor career." .
Ha Noi Blind Association member Tran Hung runs his own therapeutic massage parlour on Thuy Khue Street, in a 10sq.m flat which has just enough space for two massage beds.
"Along this street, there are many massage shops. Actually, not many of them have a serious attitude. Some of my customers say they only feel secure in a massage place of the blind," Hung says.
It is a similar story throughout the country, where massage parlours have sprung up like mushrooms, but the extra services many of them provide have made serious customers nervous, he says. In a way that has worked in favour of the blind masseurs who have become known for their serious therapeutic service. The clinics that employ them have won their customers' confidence and support and propelled the massage workers into full-time careers.
In fact, Hung says, after up to six months training, members get the same knowledge of therapy points and massage methods as sighted people and customers have said they do the job just as well.
And because the service mainly requires manual labour, lack of capital is no bar to participation.
Hung has seven siblings, three of whom are in the same situation as him. They were not born blind, but their eyesight got weaker around age 20 and gradually they went blind.
"Having experience in several different jobs, my brothers, sister and I found that massaging is not difficult to learn and to practice to help us eke out a living," Hung says.
"Many customers even request us to provide the service at their home," Hung says. "Sometimes, people give us a tip for our good service. But we feel happy to receive their sincere words of thanks. We like to feel that we are appreciated."
To help others, his small shop recruits only sight-impaired masseurs and masseuses.
Vung Tau Blind Association deputy chairwoman Tran Thi Doan Trang says the income is low for massage staff working for the Blind Association, but many members still want to work there regardless.
"The reason is that living on the premises avoids the difficulties in travelling," Trang says, "and, more importantly, the staff have the chance to live in a supportive environment among people in the same boat. They can share and help each other.
"Even though this job requires skill and patience, it is light work, which is suitable for sight-impaired people. And because they are not so distracted by what is going on around them, they have better concentration and can do the job well."
The Just Massage Centre in Ha Noi has a name that helps it get recognised as a no-nonsense therapeutic centre. Centre director Nguyen Thi Thu Hang says people support them because of the centre's values and professionalism.
Just Massage's sight-impaired staff are methodically trained by the Vietnamese and foreign experts and it specialises in training poor sight-impaired youths from around Ha Noi to make them employable.
This project has come to the notice of Vietnamese and foreign non-governmental organisations as a way to aid young blind people in difficult situations. The NGOs have provided funding and the budding massagers are also being taught life and communication skills.
However, Quyet says supporters of blind massage parlours are concerned their staff are in danger of being exploited by sighted people in pursuit of a quick profit. Many sighted people have employed blind masseurs and masseuses staff as a means of attracting customers, he says.
Quyet says blind association managers have called on local authorities to co-ordinate with them and other relevant agencies to devise policies to protect sight-impaired people from being abused or enticed into unsavoury situations. — VNS