25 November 2014, 15:23
4547 |

Massage Studio in Yerevan Gives Blind New Social Visibility

A Brief History

Over the 20th century, the former Soviet bloc was hardly a place where the disabled and handicapped were provided the most equal of opportunities. In fact, the USSR not only had little interest in assisting their integration into society, but actually made active efforts to decrease their visibility in it.

As one research article recalls, when the topic of disabled peoples arose in conversation, as it did in the first Paralympic games in 1980, Soviet authorities spoke firmly for the collective Soviet consciousness: "There are no invalids in the USSR!" The disabled were not only stigmatized, isolated, but they also became, as it were, unseen and kept seperate institutionally (placed in specialized residences called doma-internity), educationally, and professionally.  

"The illiterate man is a blind man --  Failure and disaster await him everywhere." This early example of Soviet propaganda alludes to the low social status afforded by the blind even in the earliest days of the USSR. (Poster, Aleksei Radakov, USSR, 1920)"The illiterate man is a blind man -- Failure and disaster await him everywhere." This early example of Soviet propaganda alludes to the low social status afforded by the blind even in the earliest days of the USSR. (Poster, Aleksei Radakov, USSR, 1920)

However, in apparent contradiction to the information above, the situation in Armenia for one handicapped population, the visually impaired, is actually much worse in independence than it ever was during the country’s Soviet years. While the USSR kept strict boundaries between disabled communities and the general population, hoping to socially isolate them and keep them invisible, the blind were still able to benefit from many aspects of Soviet state control. They were provided specialized jobs that employed their particular gifts using their hands.

Today in the post-Soviet Republic of Armenia, an organization is building off of the tradition of specialisation, while integrating and empowering the blind as independent and equal citizens of society, rather than isolating them.

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Seeing Hands

In 2013, the idea for Seeing Hands was propelled into motion. The basic concept, a massage studio which capitalizes on the heightened sense of touch afforded by visually impaired citizens by training and employing them as masseurs, is a logical brainchild of its two founders, Mariam Dilbandyan and Lianna Avetian. The initial idea belonged Dilbandyan, a local psychologist, who later consulted and Avetian, a practitioner of Chinese Medicine, for her expertise in the field of massage therapy.

The organization is, on one hand, a studio that provides high quality massages for patrons, and on the other (seeing) hand, its an opportunity for a too-often marginalised demographic to get access to jobs, training, and empowerment.

Extending Those Hands Outward

Located cozily on the corner of Moscovyan and Teryan streets, the business  has been in operation for over a year now and does not appear to be diminishing in momentum. Having barely functioned for 6 months, Seeing Hands has already garnered exclusive massage contracts with the Tufenkyan Hotels, the Hyatt, while others are lining up. Dilbandyan confided that there are many other opportunities similar to this one in the works, which are turning disabilities into advantages.

Dilbandyan has been savvy about promoting the business, capitalizing on Armenia’s booming IT economy. For example, she has taken advantage of some of its negative effects on individuals' physique (i.e. the numerous hours spent working in front of a computer) and actively advertises Seeing Hands as a source of relief, while also contributing to a good cause.

Seeing Hands will also hopefully be the start of a chain of similar programmes in neighbouring countries in the region, as next week will see Dilbandyan traveling to Georgia to present this idea for a possible expansion outside of Armenia. The massage studio even won a "Best Idea" prize at the Armenia-Turkey Start Up Weekend.

The certificate earned by Seeing Hands for winning prize for  the "Best Idea" in the Armenia-Turkey Startup WeekendThe certificate earned by Seeing Hands for winning prize for the "Best Idea" in the Armenia-Turkey Startup Weekend

The Faces Behind the Hands 

Dilbandyan, an outspoken advocate for the accessbility of resources and training to disadvantaged populations, first became familiar with the obstacles faced by the blind after leading an audio book recording project that recorded books to give the visually impaired increased access to intellectual resources. She firmly believes that "people with disabilities should be hired not for compassionate reasons, but because they are the best candidates." Thus, the masseurs working for Seeing Hands have been hand selected by Dilbandyan and Avetian, not out of charity, but for their expertise, work ethic, and potential. 

Artur Tadevosyan, one of the lead masseurs for Seeing Hands, who also acts as trainer for incoming students and interns. Artur Tadevosyan, one of the lead masseurs for Seeing Hands, who also acts as trainer for incoming students and interns. 

Artur Tadevosyan, for example, is one of the lead masseurs of the salon. Having lost his eyesight at age 12, he started massage therapy early on at the recommendation of his parents.

Shown here is Nune Fidanyan, an eager young intern who says that Seeing Hands has been pivotal in empowering her to assert her independence despite the obstacles she faces.Shown here is Nune Fidanyan, an eager young intern who says that Seeing Hands has been pivotal in empowering her to assert her independence despite the obstacles she faces.

Now, Tadevosyan trains other massage therapists at the studio, including the young Nune Fidanyan, a current intern in their training program. Nune studied law in at the Northern University in Yerevan. Freshly married, Fidanyan hopes that being a wife will not mean she loses her new-found independence. Her time at Seeing Hands has inspired her to continue working, helping sustain and contribute financially to her new family.

Looking Forward

At ImYerevan, we’re eagerly looking  forward to hearing (and seeing) how the business model for Seeing Hands embeds itself into Armenia’s conservative post-Soviet society. It’s an idea that we’re sure will continue opening both minds and eyes towards the potential of the visually impaired and the handicapped in general, both in Armenia and elsewhere.

 

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