The Way Out of Darkness–The Story of a Visually Impaired Masseuse

I love to work. I’m so happy I’ve become a professional masseuse and can make a living now. When a customer says to me, “That felt really good,” I feel great too! —Que Wen-li

Working slowly and methodically, Que Wen-li (闕文莉), 55, mindfully exerts pressure with her expert hands and works to relax her customer’s tense muscles. Feeling each one with her fingertips, she locates corresponding acupoints and presses and rubs them.

At first glance, there is nothing unusual about this masseuse. However, if you were to look closer, you’d notice a cloudiness in her left eye. That eye is completely blind. Her right eye is better, but not by much. She can only see blurry shapes in that one.

Que can still clearly remember the day she lost her vision. It happened so suddenly. Just the day before, she had gone to a local temple to watch a performance celebrating the Lantern Festival. Her eyes had been just fine. Who was to know that the next day she’d wake to find her vision terribly hazy? A visit to the hospital revealed the culprit: diabetes-induced retinal detachment. Overnight, her world changed forever.

Massage as a profession

Before her sudden loss of vision, Que had helped care for her mother-in-law, a stroke patient. After she went blind, it became impossible for her to continue her role as a caregiver. She couldn’t do chores around the house or go out to buy food. Her family, instead of being understanding of her condition, accused her of being lazy. They called her “a useless person.” It’s easy to see why they argued a lot during this period. “I thought constantly about ending my life during that time,” Que recalled. “I didn’t want to be a useless person.” She lost all her confidence, and isolated herself at home for the next ten years.

In 2016, she applied for a disability certification from the government, which led to a visit from social workers from the Institute for the Blind of Taiwan (IBT). The social workers encouraged her to step out of her home and to break free from her isolation. They told her that with training she would be able to do things independently again, such as taking a bus on her own. Que thought they were pulling her leg: “How is it possible for a blind person to take a bus on their own? That’s impossible!”

But the social workers were nothing if not persistent. They arranged for Que to begin receiving daily living skills training at the IBT southern center. As she relearned how to take care of herself, her faith in life was gradually reignited.

Though she was originally firmly against studying massage, Que desperately wanted to become economically independent again. “I wanted my dignity back,” she said. “I didn’t want to depend on my family for money anymore.” She knew the only way she was going to make any money was to learn a trade, so she resolutely decided to leave her hometown in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, for the IBT campus in northern Taiwan to learn massage skills. Under the guidance and help of IBT teachers, psychological counselors, and other visually impaired people, her attitude towards the massage profession gradually began to warm.

Due to limited funding, there is a yearly limit on the number of people admitted to the massage program at the IBT. People who wish to enter the program must pass a written exam and interview. “I went all out during the interview,” Que declared. “I was determined to garner a spot on the program.” Her efforts paid off, and she was admitted to the program.

However, learning massage wasn’t as easy as she had expected. The entire course lasted nine months, and every participant had to undergo 1,600 hours of intensive training. There was a lot to learn: basic anatomy, pathology, the study of the meridian system, not to mention the massage techniques themselves. The biggest challenge came from having to master the knowledge of muscle structures, acupuncture points, and the meridian system. Que, already in her 50s, often had difficulty remembering things. She felt so frustrated she even second-guessed her decision to join the program. “What was I thinking, to leave a life I was familiar with to come here to suffer?” she’d ask herself.

Fortunately, the teachers at the IBT understood what their students were going through, and they shared their own experiences to help the students through those difficult times. With the instructors’ help and encouragement, Que forged on. “Everyone goes through the same thing I’m going through,” she said to herself. “It’s not just me.” She graduated from the IBT in 2018, and with a recommendation from the institute, she began working at a massage parlor in Keelung, northern Taiwan.

“When I first started working, my hands were often so sore I’d cry at night,” Que recalled. But she tried to see this time as a transitional period. She comforted herself that she felt sore because she had worked hard. Her customers were sometimes a source of frustration too. “One time a customer told me I had done a poor job of massaging.” That comment greatly disheartened her. Her colleagues consoled her and encouraged her to turn her feeling of frustration into a motivating force for improvement, to make up for her lack of experience with a willingness to learn and get better.

Que took their advice to heart. She also began to realize the necessity to improve. She and her classmates had received a solid grounding in massage skills at the IBT, but what they had learned was not enough for them to serve the rich array of customers they would encounter in their businesses. Some of their customers might, for example, suffer from deformed spines due to poor postures, giving rise to the need to handle them differently. Therefore, Que resolved never to stop learning and improving her skills, and she was quick to consult with her fellow massage therapists if she needed help.

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