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Blind battle to remain S Korea's masseurs

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

A blind masseur protests outside court in Seoul
Kim Jang-soo, a masseur for 25 years, protests outside court in Seoul

Firm hands and nimble fingers may help, but to work as a massage therapist in South Korea you need another qualification.

You must be registered blind.

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.

Park Yoon-soo, chairman of the group wanting sighted people to have the right to be a masseur
Park Yoon-soo wants sighted people to have the right to be a masseur

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.

Demonstrations

Kim Jang-soo, a masseur for 25 years, is holding his own one-man protest outside the constitutional court.

We are trying to strengthen our policies for the disabled but realistically it is very difficult for the severely blind to find other jobs
Kang Min-kyu,
ministry for health

"Wouldn't blind people be better off fighting to become doctors, lawyers and engineers?" I ask him.

"Sighted people have the choice of many tens of thousands of jobs," he replies.

"But in Korea, even if a blind person is capable of being a professional, no-one hires them. Employers don't want us in those positions."

It is true that the rapid advance of South Korea's economy has not brought equal opportunities for all.

Wheelchair-users, for example, often complain about a lack of access to some forms of public transport.

Kang Min-kyu is the director of policy for persons with disabilities at the ministry for health.

He accepts that South Korea is now a wealthy democracy, but points out that it was a late joiner to the club.

"We are trying to strengthen our policies for the disabled," he tells me.

"But realistically it is very difficult for the severely blind to find other jobs. The massage work is important for their livelihoods, and on reflection, the government believes the current system should remain."

So is massage work a valuable protection for a vulnerable minority, or a patronising excuse for a lack of equality?

The constitutional court is expected to deliver its verdict in the next few weeks.


SEE ALSO
Country profile: South Korea
07 Aug 08 |  Country profiles


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