Thursday, May 7

Blind Masseurs

I was playing badminton with one of my co-teachers a few days ago when she started talking about how she was sore from the massage she'd gotten the day before from a blind man. She swore that it's a normal thing here but I refused to believe it and after barraging her with questions, she said something like "They are not blind... they can see shapes" and changed the subject. I don't know what that means, but apparently South Korean massage therapy jobs are reserved exclusively for blind people.
It is a legal protection that provides many blind people with autonomy and an income.

The sole right to practise massage, in place for the best part of a century, now means that more than 7,000 visually impaired massage therapists earn their living this way.

I met Han Yong-seok, busy training to become a masseur, at South Korea's National School for the Blind in Seoul.

Before coming to study here, he was once employed as a teacher.

But he lost his sight late in life, and like many of his fellow students, he says he had no choice but to give up his existing profession.

"I simply couldn't get another job apart from massage work," he tells me.

"I need to learn this trade so I can continue to bring up my family and be part of society."

Illegal army

But now this exclusive privilege is under challenge as the country's constitutional court is preparing to rule on whether the monopoly discriminates against sighted people.

It seems there is a lot more South Korean flesh to be pummelled and squeezed than
7,000 blind masseurs and masseuses can cope with.

The big cities are awash with massage parlours, barber shops and bath houses, all offering massages by unlicensed, sighted practitioners, an estimated half a million of them in total.

Now this illegal army of sighted masseurs want the country's top judges to rule that they have a basic human right to choose their profession.

Park Yoon-soo, the president of the association bringing the legal action, tells me that sighted massage therapists face a constant danger of arrest.

"They police our businesses, fine us and turn us into criminals, we can even go to jail," he says.

"Blind people should be helped into other jobs, not given exclusive rights to just one."

So, fearing the judgement may go against them, blind people have been holding noisy
demonstrations in a fight to keep the massage trade their own.

Some have even jumped off bridges into the Han river.

The police say there have been injuries, but thankfully so far no deaths, as they have been on hand to rescue the protesters from the water.

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