Few chances in sight

By Wen Ya Source:Global Times Published: 2013-5-16 23:03:01

Blind massage therapist Fu Chunming works with a patient in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, on  August 29, 2012. Photo: CFP
Blind massage therapist Fu Chunming works with a patient in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, on August 29, 2012. Photo: CFP

Blind masseur Li Jinsheng, 45, has been waiting for more than a year for the chance to retake an exam that would give him national certification from the China Disabled Persons' Federation (CDPF) and allow him to become a massage therapist.

When he took the exam in 2012, he was too slow at reading the Braille questions, and since then he has written to the CDPF on four occasions to ask them to establish an electronic certification system.

"I studied Braille in my 20s and felt it was tough to use. I couldn't even finish reading the paper during the 150 minutes I was allowed," Li, who lives in Zhumadian, Henan Province, told the Global Times Thursday. "If there had been an electronic test or facilities to help, I would have been able to finish the exam quickly."

In a letter Li received on May 7, he was told that the CDPF is liaising with the relevant authorities to establish an electronic certification test, which will be finished by the end of the year and involve listening to questions through headphones and answering using a specially designed keyboard.

"My efforts paid off. If I had a medical massage certificate, I would be able to run my clinic legally and receive government subsidies," Li said.

Born in a poor family in Queshan county, Henan Province, Li lost all vision in his right eye due to a head wound when he was 6 years old. Then, 20 years later, his left eye also lost sight due to retinal detachment. He is one of millions of blind people throughout China who struggle to find gainful employment.

Unique insights

By the end of 2010, there were 12.63 million people with visual disabilities, accounting for 15 percent of all the disabled in China, according to statistics released by the CDPF in March 2012.

Most blind people end up in the massage industry or working on speech software used in mobile phones or computers, while some become piano tuners, Lin Hongqiang, a deputy chairman of the Xi'an Blind Person's Association, told the Global Times.

"The blind have sensitive hearing and they are good at concentrating, both of these traits are required by these careers. They're also required to work indoors, which works out quite well for the blind," Lin said.

Becoming a masseur or masseuse is much easier than becoming a massage therapist. Even an illiterate blind person can learn basic massage skills within a three month training period, however becoming a trained massage therapist is more difficult. Only 30 percent of applicants are permitted to pass, Lin said.

It has also been a challenge for Wu Hailong, 50, a famous blind masseur in Haikou, Hainan Province, to get such a certificate. He is preparing for the certificate exams after failing on three occasions.

"The exams limit me from improving my qualifications, even though my skills speak for themselves," Wu told the Global Times.

Wu gradually lost his eyesight due to injuries. Unable to work, he resigned from a government-sponsored institution in 1997 in Wuzhishan in Hainan Province and stayed at home for several years, before learning massage at 40.

"I was bitter and confused about my career and future. Later, I realized I must do something to support myself. Massage was the easiest to learn," Wu said. "When I became a part of the blind community, I learned a lot."

Fierce competition

Despite his newfound career and confidence, Wu discovered there was still a lot of discrimination against blind massage practitioners.

"Some people think blind massage centers may be a front for the sex industry. Some don't believe the blind are any better at it than normal people," Wu said. "In fact, many blind massage workers are better at it but their salaries are much lower."

In Hainan, the average income of a blind massage worker is between 1,000 yuan ($162.5) to 2,000 yuan per month, while the minimum wage in the province is 1,050 yuan, according to Wu.

Competition among blind massage workers is also fierce. In addition to his role with the Xi'an Blind Person's Association, Lin, now 40, who was born blind, is a vice president of the Xi'an Massage Hospital. However, he worked in a massage hospital in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province in the late 1990s where regulations were tough.

"The hospital said that if a blind massage worker couldn't find his ward and quickly become familiar with routes in the hospital in three days, he would be fired," Lin said, adding that there were 200 blind massage workers queuing at the hospital gate every day to apply for jobs.

These workers usually work for long hours. Li said his massage center opens at 8 am and closes at 12 pm. Most of his employers work, eat and rest at the center so they can provide services at any time.

"If we don't operate the business for long hours, we earn less money and clients will choose other massage centers," Li said. "We have to break the labor laws; we must do so to compete with other massage centers."

Struggle for education

Many blind massage centers are privately owned and they usually don't sign employment contracts with employees, effectively stripping them of benefits and insurance, said Lin.

If they did, they would face bankruptcy, he said, adding that the government should provide more subsidies for the centers to improve employee benefits.   

The blind also face challenges in terms of education. Despite the 85 million disabled people recorded in China in 2010, there are only 1,697 special schools for them, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

"In terms of the national entrance exams for high schools and colleges, which often change Chinese destinies, few test papers are specially designed for the blind. This significantly limits their ability to receive an education," said Yu Fangqiang, director of Just For All, an NGO based in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, which specializes in protecting the benefits of the disabled.

The situation is slowly changing. In 2001, Guangdong Province provided electronic tests for the blind in self-study exams for higher education, the China News Service (CNS) reported.

In 2008, for the same test, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region set aside two special exam rooms for 51 blind people. The exam questions were read aloud by invigilators and ghost writers were arranged for them to write down answers, said the CNS.

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