Many of South Korea’s blind could soon lose their livelihood. For nearly 100 years, they have had the sole right to practice massage. But now that law could be ruled unconstitutional.
Tens of thousands of blind in South Korea work as masseurs
Yang Chu Suk’s long white cane scrapes across the sidewalk as he walks to his next appointment. He’s been a licensed massage therapist ever since he graduated from a school for the blind 36 years ago. He says the blind have a unique ability for massaging. "When you can’t see, you can concentrate better and that’s why we perform massages very well," says Yang.
Like Yang, thousands of South Korea’s blind and visually impaired practice massage. In fact, since 1913 only the blind have been legally permitted to work as masseurs.
Yang says without massage training, he doesn’t know what would have happened to him. “When I graduated from high school in 1972, the economic situation in Korea was really bad. My life would have been very difficult.”
Possible law change
But the law that has protected many of Korea’s blind from falling into a life of poverty could soon be history. The nation’s top court is now deciding whether or not this regulation is discriminatory against the sighted.
Throughout September, the blind have held daily protests in Seoul. They say because of the lack of social welfare programs as well as prejudice against the disabled, massage is the only way they can earn a living.
Many fear that if sighted masseurs are allowed to legally join the industry, their bosses will fire them. Thousands of sighted masseurs already practice in Korea. They face fines, but the law is loosely enforced. According to blind advocates, that takes away jobs from the visually impaired.
Livelihood of the blind challenged
Lee Gyu Seong is secretary general of the Korean Masseurs Association, a group that represents seven thousand blind massage therapists. He says anyone who is not blind is technically working illegally: “They cannot get a massage certificate. Even sports massage places are illegal.”
But the blind themselves may bear some responsibility for their lack of career options. Educators of the blind say many students believe they can’t succeed in other fields and are reluctant to take other courses.
Kim Ho Shik, an instructor at the Seoul National School for the Blind, explains that besides the massage program, the school tried to start a college preparation program five years ago.
"At first, it was well received but now its popularity has dwindled. That’s because if you choose to go to university, you do not get massage training. And many blind students feel that if they don’t learn massage then they can’t make money.”
The Constitutional Court may rule as early as this week on the blind’s massage exclusivity.