BANGKOK — After finishing giving a herbal ball massage, Nat puts on sunglasses and steps out of his workplace onto the busy road, cane in hand tapping the street.
He stops by the closest food market, drawn to the smell of a khao gaeng stall, where an auntie is ladling hot curries into plastic bags. He asks what’s on the menu.
“Can’t you see for yourself? They’re right in front of you,” she says back.
“Auntie, I can’t see!” he says.
“If you can’t see, then go buy food somewhere else,” she said.
Such is a typical lunchtime for Anant “Nat” Kumsawang, 43, an employee at Perception Massage Studio, which hires only visually impaired or blind masseuses.
Suwatt Pathompakawan, co-founder, decided to open the Perception franchise in 2015 after he received a blind massage near a vocational training school. Not only was the exterior “scary-looking” and uninviting for spatime, he wasn’t allowed to give tips for the 70-baht-per-hour massage.
“It was so cheap and I knew the masseuse would only get a cut. I asked the receptionist if I could give a tip, but they brushed it off saying, ‘What for?’” Suwatt said. “It wasn’t fair.”
By opening Perception, he hoped to open a career option with a good environment for the blind.
A recent visit to their year-old Silom branch showed a refurbished townhouse with polished concrete walls and floors, decorated in a calming gray motif. They’ve got two older branches in Sathorn and in Thapae, Chiang Mai.
About a fourth of each massage goes to the masseuse, a slightly higher cut than most regular massage joints. Prices are higher than Health Land, but lower than Let’s Relax. For example, a one-hour Thai massage costs 450 baht, or 800 baht for two hours. A Thai herbal ball massage is 900 baht for 90 mins, or 1,200 baht for two hours.
“I love getting massages and I’ve always found the blind to be better at massages. They have a better sense of muscle pains,” Suwatt said.
New hires are taken to register for an official disability card if they don’t already have one, and train to massage a la Perception. Many already have some massage training from vocational schools.
The masseuses are given free food and lodging on the top floor of each branch. At the Silom branch, there were two shared bathrooms and one dorm room each for the men and women. In their free time, workers usually stay inside and listen to music, audiobooks, and textbooks, and use Facebook through the voice-to-speech function.
The author decided to try a Thai herbal ball massage with Chutima “Yui” Panpong, 41, who had a meticulous and firm hand, patiently rubbing sore muscles. To keep track of time, she listened to the ticking of her wristwatch.
Nat, a native of Nong Khai and Bueng Kan, wants to see more blind Thais take up a trade for self-fulfillment, rather than staying indoors.
“Step outside,” Nat urged. “Use your trade and skills. Don’t let it die with you. Don’t think of yourself as a burden, but make yourself useful to others.”
The Unseen Abuse of the Blind
But unlike Nat, Yui doesn’t want to brave the streets of Silom at all.
“I don’t go outside at all if no one’s taking me,” Yui said. “Cars never watch out for us, and they can scrape your arm.”
The visually impaired in Thailand officially number 197,635 people, of 2,024,460 registered disabled citizens, according to May 2019 statistics from the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities. Half of the visually impaired reside in Isaan.
Under Thai law, public and private institutions must either hire one disabled person for every 100 employees, or contribute to a state rehabilitation fund – most opt for the latter. Unsurprisingly, many disabled citizens are mired in poverty and cannot find work. According to Phillip Cornwel-Smith in “Very Thai,” 87 percent of the disabled “languish as rural recluses.” The rest busk and sing in cities to get by.
Abuse of the disabled, and their regular lack of proper care and education, partially stems from deeply-rooted beliefs in Thai society that the disabled are born so due to bad karma.
“Many don’t even think of stepping outside of their houses, and just live off the 800 baht disability stipend,” Nat said.
He explains that many blind people, like Yui, are afraid of verbal abuse if they go out in public.
“Back home, when I bumped into things at the market, they would yell at me. When I was studying for my masseuse license in Pak Kret [Nonthaburi] I would step on veggies and eggs and my professor had to run behind me to pay the vendors.”
Even now, Nat usually has to walk on the side of the road, since there are no mechanisms on sidewalks to assist the blind, with braille-block installation largely uneven.
“Please just let us have a small part of the sidewalk to walk, like a bike lane,” he said.
For Yui and Nat, working as a masseuse at Perception was not only a way out financially, but a venue of self-actualization.
“There are only a few career paths available to the blind, such as selling lottery tickets or performing in public,” the articulate Nat said. “But for me, being a masseuse is dignity. As a masseuse, people don’t call me ‘you cripple,’ or ‘you so-and-so.’ Here, customers call me doctor.”
More than a decade ago, Yui lost her vision due to macular degeneration. Formerly an office worker, she stayed home without employment and her ex-husband left her for another woman. She only started working at Perception in August.
“I really wish I had been brave enough to step outside of my house earlier than this. I wasted ten years,” she said.
“Before, I had to borrow money from my family. Today, it’s the other way around.”
This article is unsponsored and the author paid for a massage herself.
Perception Silom branch is a short walk from BTS Sala Daeng and is open from noon to midnight.
Perception Sathorn branch is reachable from BTS Chong Nonsi and is open every day from 10am to 10pm.
Perception Thapae branch in Chiang Mai is open from 10am to 10pm.