Seeing hands: How visually impaired people defied odds to provide massage therapy

On 30 August 2022 at 02:28

A visually impaired person who studied up to the university does neither need financial support nor classification in the first Ubudehe socio-economic category. She/he just needs acceptance at the labour market. Apart from visual impairment, other parts of the body are normal. If she/he can secure a job, the person can lead a dignified life owing to acquired knowledge instead of begging, hence putting an end to related stereotypes.

These viewpoints are underscored by visually impaired persons who completed university studies and underwent massage therapy training after failing to secure a job.

The training is offered by Seeing Hands Rwanda, an non-governmental organization with a mission to improve the social and economic wellbeing of people with visual impairments and their families.

The organization meets the goals by training them on massage therapy, providing jobs and other forms of support.

Beth Gatonye, the founder and legal representative of Seeing Hands Rwanda says that the idea surfaced after realizing how many of people with visual impairments lead hard life owing to rejection by some employers regardless of their academic background.

As she says, the organization was created with a view to increase employment opportunities specifically through training to provide high quality professional massages to members of the community.

The massage therapy provided by visually impaired persons was introduced in 2017 even though many would not trust their services initially.

Despite societal bias, Gatonye sees their potential in a different perspective. If they are well trained, Gatonye attests that visually impaired persons can work as professionals that offer high quality services that some of people with normal eyes can’t do.

Considering the extent at which trained individuals offer massage therapy with great perfection, Gatonye stresses the need to break barriers hampering opportunities for persons with visual impairments to unleash their potential because ’disability is not inability’.

She explains that most employers focus on their disability side, hence prompting them to question their productivity at work.

“When you are visually impaired, other parts of the body develop strong capacity. These persons working here are visually impaired but their hands can see. They can make money using their own hands. They are very professional in massage therapy. They are never distracted at work and use their time efficiently,” said Gatonye.

Considering their courage and professionalism at work, Gatonye observes that disability should not be an excuse for employers to reject people with visual impairments.

Josiane Mukayiranga started working with Seeing Hands Rwanda in 2019 after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Rwanda.

“I learnt that this organization receives visually impaired persons for training on massage therapy for free. I was a fresh graduate from the University of Rwanda but had not yet got a job. I acquired all the necessary techniques within six months because we learn by doing,” she revealed.

Mukayiranga says that she has learnt different techniques and continues to upgrade her skills.

They do not have regular clients but their job helps them meet basic needs in daily life.

“Many people have not yet understood the relevance of massage. We do not receive clients regularly yet increasing income has to go hand in hand with clientele. However, this profession which is not unusual helps us survive,” she affirms.

Ruth Iradukunda, is a graduate from the School of Journalism at the University of Rwanda. She joined Seeing Hands Rwanda six months ago.

Even though the profession doesn’t generate huge amounts of money, Iradukunda says, it helps them become self-reliant and meet basic needs instead of begging.

“We do not earn handsome income but the impact of what we do goes beyond meeting our basic needs to extend support to our families. However, some of our clients still have primitive understanding that visually impaired people cannot perform any activity successfully,” she discloses.

“There are people harbouring negative mindsets that people with visual impairment can’t do anything. Other parts of the body complement each other to perform a particular task. That mother has proved that our hands have a great potential in providing for a visually impaired person and others,” adds Iradukunda.

Long journey ahead

Gatonye says that she has trained 50 persons including 10 university graduates who had no jobs.

She emphasizes that lacking job opportunities after graduation, discourages their brothers and sisters from advancing their education.

Gatonye also reveals that the organization has got connections with new partners to train beneficiaries on detecting breast cancer which she believes will increase opportunities for visually impaired persons who seem to be isolated in the community.

It is uneasy to teach a visually impaired person because it requires much practice and rehearsals. However, Gatonye explains that they learn fast as they are not exposed to many distractions. Within two years, she said, they can master different techniques of massage.

Part of generated income is shared among beneficiaries while the rest is used to pay teachers and buy equipment in case they do not receive funds from donors.

Gatonye urges the general public to avoid primitive understanding and stop stigmatizing people with visual impairment because they deserve a dignified life and respect like other members of the community.

The negative mindsets toward such people, she says, has seen some people denying them some services. She points out some cases where motorcyclists refuse to give them a ride with assumptions that they don’t have money to pay. Among others, Gatonye said that some landlords do not accept people with visual impairments yet they have money.

Gatonye discloses that she was isolated at different times over working with visually impaired people and requests people to shun such negative mindsets.

“There are instances when I was denied a house for rent because I work with visually impaired people. We have graduates from journalism but no one accepts to give them an employment opportunity. We have ICT professionals but no one trusts them,” she noted.

The issue was also pointed out by Callixte Ikuzwe. He is visually impaired but studied Assistive Technology used by people living with disability.

He currently works with Seeing Hands Rwanda.

“You can hardly find someone to trust you in the society. People only see you in the aspect of disability. In some cases, employers let you sit for job entry exam but with much worries. Mindsets are still primitive. People think that people with disability can only work with organizations giving priority to these persons. It should not be taken into that perspective because they are able to contribute to national development in different ways,” said Ikuzwe.

He requested the government to up efforts aimed at advancing inclusion of persons living with disabilities at the labour market.

Courses at Seeing Hands Rwanda begin at 9:00 a.m. When a client needs services, one of trainees designated on rotational basis is obliged to stop class and attend to him or her.

They go for break at 1:00 p.m. and return to class at 2:00 p.m.

Due to limited resources, beneficiaries are not accommodated the center that they return home at 4:00 p.m. everyday.

Josiane Mukayiranga started working with Seeing Hands Rwanda in 2019 after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Rwanda.
Ruth Iradukunda, is a graduate from the School of Journalism at the University of Rwanda. She joined Seeing Hands Rwanda six months ago.
Callixte Ikuzwe studied Assistive Technology.
Beth Gatonye, the founder and legal representative of Seeing Hands Rwanda.