CNN reported yesterday that 26 blind masseurs in South Korea have been arrested after threatening to jump from a Han River bridge in protest of the Health Ministry’s decision to grant licenses to sighted masseurs for some types of massage.  Since 1963, only the blind have been authorized to practice massage, and the protestors assert that the new policy endangers their livelihoods.  The notion of reserving massage as the professional provision of the blind was originally introduced by Japanese colonialists in 1913, and provides the disabled with a protected means of gainful employment.  Two protestors jumped from the bridge after a struggle with police, and some set fire to a car (no injuries reported in this instance, although The New York Times reports that two blind masseurs were killed after throwing themselves from buildings and onto subway tracks).

Once I finally wrapped my tiny mind around the tragicomic, absurdist nature of this article (it took a couple of reads and some double-checking to ensure I wasn’t reading the synopsis of a new Coen Brothers flick), I realized it raised some interesting questions. 

The protesters said the new policy puts their jobs at risk. There are about 15,000 licensed masseurs in the country, which has a blind population of 216,000.

“Medical massage is almost the only profession that is open to the blind people. The ministry’s decision is threatening our right to live,” Shim Wook-seop, one of the protesting masseurs, was quoted as saying.

So, if elementary school math still serves me (not guaranteed), about 7% of the blind population is legally employed in the massage profession.  While I’m not sure how many masseurs per capita a country needs, and South Korea has a population of nearly 49 million, it sounds to me like they may have a legitimate grievance.  Dong Seong-geun told The New York Times:

“If I lose this job, I will have to beg on the streets. How can taking away one job from people who only have one compare with taking one job away from sighted people who have a hundred jobs to choose from?”

However, it is estimated that anywhere from 150,000 to 700,000 unlicensed masseurs practice their trade within the country, and it is acklowledged that demand is high.  Sighted masseurs have appealed to the Constitutional Court, arguing that that professional massage should not be limited to the blind, and a ruling is pending.  The first time the issue was brought before the court in 2003, the court ruled in favor of the blind masseurs, as the South Korean Constitution requires that the state protect the disabled.  However, it also promises citizens the right to practice the trade of their choosing, and a 2006 ruling called the restriction discriminatory. 

Currently, the practice of massage without a license can be punishable by three years in prison, although offenders are usually fined between $450 and $4,500 if prosecuted.  The complaint has been brought forward by the Massager Association of Korea, which represents “120,000 unlicensed masseurs who are working openly and in defiance of the law.”

“It breaks my heart when I think that what I am doing every day, what I consider my calling, is a crime,” Park Yoon-soo, president of the association, told the NYT.

“We are not trying to steal jobs from the blind. We just want to share the market. We want to live as normal citizens, not as criminals.”

So, in a country (actually, in a world) that relegates the disabled to the status of second-class citizens, what laws should reasonably be in place to ensure that they can find gainful employment?  Can discrimintation against the general citizenry be rationalized to protect a minority that, frankly, needs the protection?  We talk a lot about racial and sexual discrimination, but discrimination against the disabled is just as pervasive and problematic, and just as inherent a human rights issue.  And as the South Korean masseurs have drawn attention to their cause, it’s clear that it’s not something to which we can turn a blind eye.