The situation for Armenia’s visually impaired has, in many ways, worsened, since the collapse of the USSR. Despite attempts at isolating people with disabilities, Soviet principles of equality inspired policies aiming to turn them into productive members societies as much as possible. They could thus benefit from some level of state assistance. This situation changed, as lack of funding, and general stigma against human imperfection, (ironically also inherited from the Soviets) have made it increasingly difficult for people with disabilities to reach their full potential.
General apathy coupled with a lack of political will to tackle some of the issues related to people with disabilities, particularly, the visually impaired. This has lead to the rise of civil society organisations aiming to address these problems head-on on their own. Aside from some NGOs which have been fighting for the rights of the disabled, private sector solutions have also begun to take shape.
Among those is the Seeing Hands massage studio. Seeing Hands came about as the result of my previous work with an NGO for the visually impaired, where I learned about all the challenges, socio-economic problems, and stigma that the beneficiaries faced. Through my work with an NGO for the visually impaired, I found that there are 6,000 blind people in Armenia, and only about 20-25 of them were permanently employed.
Upon doing some research, i discovered a Soviet-era plan to train the visually impaired as therapeutic masseurs and built upon that Idea. Enlisting the help of my friend Liana Avetian, a trained and certified clinical masseuse, we began to train some willing pioneers. The basic concept was a massage studio that capitalises on the heightened tactile sense afforded by visually impaired citizens while creating respectable jobs by training and employing them as masseurs.
We also received initial support from UNDP Armenia’s Kolba Labs to open our Massage Studio “Seeing Hands”, in a new location.
Though challenging at first, Avetian found that students were fast learners; to compensate for the loss of sight, their other senses were enhanced. “The receptors in their fingers are very much developed, their hands are like their eyes, It’s perfect for them, but the biggest problem is that sometimes they’re not trusting you easily - because if you don’t see, you will not trust."
'The organisation is, on one hand, a studio that provides high-quality massages for patrons, and on the other (seeing) hand, it’s an opportunity for a too-often marginalised demographic to get access to jobs, training, and empowerment.
Seeing Hands also took advantage of Armenia’s recent tech boom, which now employs thousands of IT professionals. This creates a new demographic of well paid middle-class people who spend their days hunched in front of a computer and often developing back pain. This allows us to train more masseurs to meet such a demand. We currently have 4 full time masseurs: 3 men and one woman, and 2 more being trained.
This concept has also gotten attention outside of Armenia, and we are already in talks to franchise the model across the region, such as in neighbouring Georgia. We are also considering other private ventures, of Private-Public Partnerships to explore other ways in which people with disabilities can be active, and productive members of society.
I want to note that a disability could happen to anyone, as is the case with some of my workers, and that it could change a person’s entire life. But that didn’t close all of their doors
Such social businesses are a positive example to break stereotypes about people with disabilities [and their presumed] inability to work