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S. Korea's Blind Search for New Opportunities

  • Jason Strother

Cafe More in Seoul, South Korea employs a legally blind staff (J. Strother/VOA)

Cafe More in Seoul, South Korea employs a legally blind staff (J. Strother/VOA)

SEOUL - South Korea’s blind have a unique privilege. For much of the past century they have held the constitutional right as the only people allowed to work as masseurs. But that law has come under repeated challenges from sighted masseurs who say it is unfair. With another legal challenge looming, some say it’s time for the blind to find new careers.

Café More might be the only coffee shop in Seoul with a Braille menu. It is not just for visually impaired customers, but also the staff.

Lee Seong-ju, 34, has worked here for two years and admits the job does have its challenges. She says it was difficult at first to measure the water in the coffee machine. When making an Americano she couldn't tell how high the water level was. But after a while, Lee says she learned to get the feel of it.

Café More is part of a government-funded training program that gives the blind new career options.

For decades, South Korea’s visually impaired have relied on a constitutional provision that allows them to work exclusively in the massage business. Now that law is once again being challenged by sighted masseurs.

The last time this happened the blind took to the street to protect their privilege. In 2008 demonstrations were held in front of the nation’s highest court. Judges ruled in favor of the blind, overturning an earlier decision that took away their privilege. Later this year, the courts will again have to decide if protecting the rights of the minority outweighs the rights of the majority.

Na Eun-moon, an instructor at the Korean Blind Masseurs Association, says for the nation’s several thousand licensed visually-impaired masseurs, there is no other way to make a steady income. He says for those who have practiced massage for a long time, there is no other job that can offer the same kind of pay. According to Na, there just are not that many options other than massage.

Sighted masseurs now work illegally at gyms, spas and saunas, driving down the price for massages in recent years. That means blind masseurs are earning about half of what they used to, says Choi Dong-ik of the Korea Blind Union.

“This is the time to develop new jobs for the blind. In these days, massage is a slow industry we are going to lose many massage shops," noted Choi. "Right now, we blind people want another job.”

Choi says the Blind Union is training the visually impaired to become quality control specialists for audio devices. He also has hired some blind employees to repair headphones used by airline companies.

But Choi says given the popularity of coffee around Korea, he hopes that more shops, like Café Moore, will hire blind baristas.

Inside a small classroom located adjacent to Café More, seven legally blind trainees are taking turns on an espresso machine.

Song Seon-mae, 40, who has worked as a masseur for 20 years, says she wants to try something new. Song says the blind do want to work in different types of jobs and learn things besides massage. But the problem is many companies will not hire people like her. Businesses need to have a more open mind, she says.

The Blind Union is now looking for investors to open Café More franchises.