When Chan Chat-fung’s sight started deteriorating in her 30s due to retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative eye disease, she knew she had to switch careers. She was working in garment merchandising at the time. It was then that Chan came across the Health Massage and Treatment Centre. The organisation’s mission is to provide employment opportunities for the visually impaired. It aims to give them a sense of achievement and belonging in a society which, according to the centre, is largely ignorant of the plights of those with the disability. The centre provided Chan with a one-year massage training course when she first joined. Upon her graduation, the organisation hired her as a masseuse. From there, she underwent further on-the-job training, taking on more courses and eventually also becoming a facial therapist. “I was a bit scared at first,” Chan said. “I worried about whether my skills were good enough to meet the expectations of clients.” However, with each massage and facial, and with clients coming back for more, her confidence grew. Now 53, Chan has become friends with her customers, like Fion Lam Sit Siu-fan. Lam first found out about massages and facials done by the visually impaired as a volunteer at the Hong Kong Society for the Blind, which runs the centre. In the beginning, she tried out the services because she wanted to support those she helped, but she soon found herself visiting three times a month. “I feel better after getting massages. My body doesn’t ache as much,” Lam said. “Also, I used to get facials elsewhere, but I prefer it here because the staff aren’t constantly trying to sell you services and products.” The centre has been providing such jobs to the visually impaired for 25 years. Its two outlets in Shek Kip Mei and Tuen Mun are often fully booked. Manager Winnie Woo said it all came down to raising awareness among clients about how people with the disability are no different from everyone else. “Customers don’t come here just to buy the service, they buy into the mission too. They believe in employment for the visually impaired,” she said. It hopes that by encouraging more communication between the visually impaired and the rest of society, Hong Kong will develop into a more caring community. The centre has extended its operations to mobile services where staff travel to residences or corporate locations to provide massages. This entrepreneurial mindset enabled the centre to weather the Sars period, when most people were wary of activities requiring close contact with others, especially massages. Foundation owner on path to alleviate hunger among city’s poor Woo said although it was a low point for their business, the centre survived because of staff efforts such as taking pains to disinfect all equipment throughly, with a focus on safety. “Those who are visually impaired are most concerned about their working environment. We have equipment such as chairs with rounded edges and massage tables that move up and down mechanically, so our employees don’t injure themselves. “They want a safe and familiar environment to work in, with people they trust. That’s why we have staff who have stayed with us since we opened.” Woo said she felt that even she had gained something from her experience at the centre. “I’ve worked here for over eight years. I’m not a social worker, I have a business background, but here, I received exposure to another side of society. I see the visually impaired working so hard, and I really admire them. “Their work allows them to earn money and to raise their families and contribute to society.” For its efforts in caring for the visually impaired and cultivating a healthy working environment for them, the Health Massage and Treatment Centre has been nominated for South China Morning Post ’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards in the Lion Rock Entrepreneurship category.