Amrita Garg being recognized for her role as a sponsor of registered apprenticeships for the Ready, Willing and ABLE project during National Apprenticeship Week. (L-R) Nicholas Wyman, president of IWSI America, Mark Erlichman, deputy director, Vocational Rehabilitation Employment Division. California State Department of Rehabilitation, and Amita Garg, campus director of Healthcare Career College.
Amita Garg being recognized for her role as a sponsor of registered apprenticeships for the Ready, Willing and ABLE project during National Apprenticeship Week. (L-R) Nicholas Wyman, president of IWSI America, Mark Erlichman, deputy director, Vocational Rehabilitation Employment Division. California State Department of Rehabilitation, and Amita Garg, campus director of Healthcare Career College.

People with visual impairments are a natural fit for massage therapy, and a California health care college is partnering with a specialist apprenticeship organization to help match jobs for the blind and visually impaired with students.

Amita Garg, campus director of the Healthcare Career College, helped recruit the first cohort of 15 students for the 11-month program which started from its South Los Angeles site on Jan. 10.

The college is working with Ready Willing and ABLE, which has joined forces with the California Department of Rehabilitation and the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation America (IWSI) to support Californians with disabilities to secure full-time careers through registered apprenticeship.

This registered apprenticeship program combines classroom instruction from seasoned instructors at the Healthcare Career College with on-the-job training with local employers who have agreed to hire the apprentice massage therapists.

The program creates a rewarding career pathway, offers paid employment, helps employers build a talent pipeline and eliminate skill shortages, and helps establish a sustainable apprenticeship framework.

Lessons from Abroad

As a Fulbright Scholar, Garg saw first-hand in East Asia how that society accepted blind massage therapists.

“I spent time in Japan and Korea and saw the profession of massage was reserved for blind people historically, she said. “It’s practical and a means of income in a society where you don’t have social security.”

Garg also visited a massage clinic in Nepal staffed with only blind people. That clinic, called Magic Fingers, is an entrepreneurial prototype. Research shows that it was successfully built on the notion of exceptionality to overcome deep-rooted stigma.

“You don’t have to feel awkward being in close contact with a blind therapist,” said Garg.

Recently, she gave the college’s would-be students from the Department of Rehabilitation a tour of her campus.

“I noticed their hands at work. They touched a skeleton model and felt every little curve, bump and texture. Our bodies are so complex—there are knots, and you feel the pulse and temperature changes. If you observe primarily through touch, you can be a much better healer,” she said.

Some visually impaired people may be very in tune with their clients’ bodily responses to massage therapy. According to a statement from the American Institute of Alternative Medicine, “They have stronger senses of touch and are often able to find trigger points, knots and other areas of tension that clients did not even know about. Blind massage therapists rely entirely on their sense of touch and intuition, which are the most important qualities in any massage therapists—blind or not.”

An Optional Career Path

While Garg is mindful that people with visual impairments may have suitable attributes to pursue a career in massage therapy, she maintains it should be their choice. That’s why her Healthcare Career College aims to be intentional and careful in how it markets, designs and delivers its massage therapy course for visually impaired people.

“It’s not just about the money people with a disability can earn, but what kind of satisfaction they get from a good match of their personality, likes, dislikes and life experience to their work. Let’s listen to that—see them as a person first and if they happen to have a disability, find a way to accommodate that,” said Garg.

“We’re a vocational school and understand that adult learners should face no barriers if they want to tackle a new career,” she added.

Massage Jobs for the Blind & Visually Impaired

The massage therapy sector is expected to grow 20% between now and 2032, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This makes it a viable opportunity for people with visual impairments.

There is another reason why creating this talent pipeline makes sense. A late 2019 study found that only 44% of the US population with a visual impairment had work. Another 10% want to work but are unemployed.

Garg said she’s also aware of many blind people keen to explore self-employment so they “don’t have to deal with barriers and discrimination in the whole structure of the workplace”.

Connie Cardona, a visually impaired massage therapy apprentice at Healthcare Career College, shared her reason for enrolling in the program:

“I found a quote that said, ‘It’s not just a massage, it’s an experience.’ I strongly believe this, because the whole reason I wanted to join the massage program was because a woman [I met] told me she woke up blind and the only thing she wanted to do was give up.

“It was a dark time for her, so she started going to therapy and they suggested [massage] for her to at least calm her body, since going blind was shocking news for her mind and body (especially since she was pregnant.)

“After she got a massage she said her whole life changed. She had a different perspective on how to make someone feel better. That one massage made her realize she didn’t want to give up and then she actually became a [massage therapist] herself. Now she owns her own practice.

“I want to be able to change someone’s life like that and make them want to do something more for themselves and not give up.”

Joining Forces for Good

At the time of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, Garg’s college tried to run a pilot massage therapy course for the visually impaired.

Since then, she’s become involved in workforce development groups and IWSI, attending a meeting in May 2022 that started things for the latest incarnation of the course. IWSI will help students find work upon graduation.

She’s also tapped into expertise to ensure the course develops students’ skills across a range of soft-tissue massage therapy techniques. They include clinic, Swedish, trigger point and deep tissue massage. Students will also learn about kinesiology and physical therapy fundamentals.

For graduates, this course will open doors to work in local integrative health environments, massage clinics and spas.

What’s surprised Garg, though, is transportation is proving the biggest barrier.

“It’s the number-one reason why people with a disability don’t start these training programs, but it’s fixable,” she said. “We’re pooling resources as a community college, working with IWSI, really thinking outside the box.”

Online learning, though, doesn’t work for the highly practical course content.

“We just have to go back to the old-school way of teaching verbally and by touch. And we’re building course material that’s audio enabled. Students will have oral exams,” said Garg.

To help students gain experience, her college will set up an on-site clinic for members of the public to have discounted massages.

“I need to produce a really good product—[a] great massage therapist. My vision is that students will be so awesome, indispensable, and some will even collaborate to set up their own business.”

With the cohort signed up so far, they won’t be starting from zero. “I’ve asked every enrolled student about why they want to do the course. They all say, ‘I used to massage my family, mum and friends, and they’ve said I should do this for a living.’”

Thanks to the program and IWSI, that choice is within reach.

Deborah Williamson

About the Author

Deborah Williamson is vice president of special projects and operations at the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation America (IWSI America). She currently is the project manager of IWSI America’s Ready, Willing and ABLE program, operating in partnership with the CaliforniaDepartment of Rehabilitation, to establish registered apprenticeships for individuals with disabilities.