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Massage Offers Blind Cambodians Way Out of Poverty

Blind people in Cambodia face an uphill struggle. Discrimination against the blind is widespread and educational and employment opportunities are few and far between. One way out of their predicament is through "Seeing Hands" massage shops that offer employment and educational opportunities to the blind.

Cambodia has one of the highest rates of blindness in the world. There are about 144,000 blind people in the country representing 1.25 percent of the population.

Cambodia's poor health care system means that common diseases like chicken pox and measles leave many people blind. Traffic accidents, crime, and accidents with unexploded mines and bombs left over from decades of war are other leading causes.

Not many opportunities for employment

For the blind in Cambodia, educational and employment opportunities are few and far between.

Boun Mao, the Director of the Association of the Blind in Cambodia (ABC), lost his sight in 1993 when robbers threw acid in his face. He says Cambodian's belief in karma leads to widespread discrimination against the blind.

"The Blind People in Cambodia are most facing with the discrimination because the public and the family believe in karma - that the blind have sinned in the past life," explained Boun Mao. "When you are born blind until you die you do nothing useful in society - even in the family."

Opportunities are essential

Boun Mao says the key to ending discrimination against the blind is by giving them access to employment and educational opportunities.

"We want to see the blind people in Cambodia get access to employment, health care, education and accessibility. We need to show more [role] models of blind people who are really successful in their lives and their jobs," Boun Mao said.

One such role model is 22-year-old Vi Rak. He lost his sight from chicken pox when he was a baby. Five years ago he set up a blind massage shop in Phnom Penh.

He says that he has a lot of blind friends and that he had the idea that they could all get together and work in a group. So, he says, he learned massage and then he taught his friends how to do it so that they could all earn a living. He says that today things are much better and he and his employees are like one big family.

What are blind massage shops?

About a dozen blind shops have opened in Phnom Penh and other cities in recent years.

Blind massage shops are run on a cooperative basis. About half of the profits go to salaries with the rest reinvested in the employee's development such as teaching them how to use computers and how to read braille.

Blind land mine survivor So Pary, 24, says that becoming a masseur changed his life.

He says after he became blind his family picked on him a lot because he could not do any work. He says that something had to change and then he discovered this organization that taught him massage. He says that now he is happy because he can work again and help his family.

A better massage?

Many customers say blind masseurs and masseuses are better because they have a better sense of touch.

Tourist Tony Rice from London, England enjoyed the experience.

"Well I would recommend a blind massage to anyone really," said Rice. "It is intense, accurate - they found a weak spot I have got and it is a really good thing for people to come and do when they are in Cambodia."

A massage at a "Seeing Hands" massage shop typically cost about $5 for one hour, but with fewer tourists around these days, better deals are often available.

So as well as being great value for money, having a blind massage allows you to feel great while at the same time helping some of Cambodia's most vulnerable people.