The Blind Counselors Helping People Face Themselves in the Dark
Like most psychological counselors, Wang Yanlong invites his clients to enter his office, sit down, and talk about their issues. In his case, however, the room is pitch-black. As Wang is blind, the lack of light doesn’t affect him. His clients, on the other hand, really open up, he says: “People feel humbled when they enter a dark space. It amplifies their feelings and forces people to face themselves head-on.”
As a freshman in college around five years ago, Wang began offering group counseling sessions as one of the many events he organized in the dark — another was “blind dates” for university students. After graduating last year, Wang turned his counseling workshop, Dark Enlightenment, into a company with three other full-time employees — two of them blind. Based in the eastern city of Ningbo, the organization has served more than 2,000 clients thus far.
It has been Wang’s dream to discover new ways for people living with visual impairments to contribute to society and make a living. Wang lost his eyesight in an accident when he was 16. For two years, he hardly left the house and fell into despair — growing up in a rural village near Xingtai, in northern China’s Hebei province, he had never met a blind person before.
In China, the estimated 12.6 million people living with visual impairments are largely invisible to the rest of society. The only vocational option for most is the massage industry. Since the 1980s, the government has promoted masseuse jobs as suitable work for people with visual impairments, and in its latest five-year plan, the China Disabled Persons’ Federation aims to train at least 50,000 new massage professionals and establish another 70 masseuse training centers.
It’s not easy for people with visual impairments to escape this essentially predetermined career path. Though Wang’s team once numbered around 20 people — half of them blind — many left the startup after graduation in search of more stable employment, with some choosing to become massage professionals.
Wang spoke to Sixth Tone about his ambitions over the past 10 years, the challenges in breaking down barriers for blind people, and his expectations for the future. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Wang Yanlong poses for a photo. Courtesy of Wang Yanlong
Sixth Tone: How do clients typically respond to counseling sessions in the dark?
Wang Yanlong: We chose to receive clients in a completely dark room because the darkness will humble people and at the same time negate our disadvantage that comes from being blind.
I call our blind colleagues “enlighteners.” Our uniquely designed group counseling sessions help people relieve pressure, identify their shortcomings, and find solutions. For example, we hold parent-child events to improve family relationships with games such as identifying fruits and other objects by feeling their shape.
In one of the activities, children are asked to identify their parents, who are hiding somewhere or lost in a crowd. These little kids can exceed the adults’ expectations: Surprisingly, they can remember a parent’s cigarette smell or the way they walk, which makes parents realize how powerfully their everyday actions influence their children. Sessions in which clients express their true feelings to one another also help facilitate communication and trust.
During our workshops, I don’t only want to have people experience how a blind person walks and lives. I also want them to understand our value: If they can rely on us in the darkness, they can also trust us in the light.
Sixth Tone: What inspired you to start the program?
Wang Yanlong: When I was a freshman student in 2013, I wanted to develop new job positions, not only for myself but also for my friends with visual impairments.
My college, Binzhou Medical University, was one of only three schools that accepted visually impaired students at that time, one year before the national college entrance examination opened to visually impaired students. However, the choice of majors at these schools is still limited to massage, under the field of traditional Chinese medicine.
In other words, no matter how well we do in school, we are still expected to become so-called blind masseuses after graduation. Even though my classmates and I earned medical degrees upon graduating, it’s impossible for us to officially work at a hospital or clinic — it’s impossible for us to enter the medical field, as that requires a physician certificate for which you must complete a practical and written test.
Students with visual impairments touch a model of the human body to learn acupuncture points in traditional Chinese medicine at Changchun University, Jilin province, July 8, 2014. VCG
Sixth Tone: How did you become a psychological counselor?
Wang Yanlong: I tried to find new jobs that more people with visual impairments could do, such as translators or lawyers. But low vision indeed brought us difficulties in these fields: We couldn’t write in shorthand on paper or collect evidence quickly.
I have had a strong interest in psychology since high school, so I wondered whether I could pursue that as a career. The national certification exam also [offers special accommodations for] visually impaired people. However, when my classmates and I tried to find internships, even with the certification, still no organization or clinic would accept us. They had reservations because we couldn’t read clients’ gestures, body language, or facial expressions, and they worried about how we would get to the office each day.
In my eyes, these are all excuses. The core issue is that society refuses to see us. They can’t believe that visually impaired people can use smartphones and computers — they don’t know anything about us.
Since we couldn’t join an ordinary clinic, we had to change tack. Our training is still useful and valuable to our counseling workshops in the dark — we just have to adapt it in a skillful way.
Actually, there are also many misconceptions surrounding psychological counseling. People worry whether seeing a counselor means they have a mental disorder, and they don’t trust that counseling — which can cost hundreds of yuan — will really help. So under these circumstances, our workshops are attractive because they seem more casual and relaxed. Our visual impairment also becomes a selling point.
Currently, our company only offers group sessions and doesn’t do private counseling at this stage. We see that many people want further help after attending our workshops, so we hope to expand the business as we gain more counseling experience.
Sixth Tone: What’s the current situation for blind people when it comes to finding jobs?
Wang Yanlong: The government has made efforts to promote employment equality for people with disabilities, but good policies sometimes have bad outcomes. Currently, the problem is that blind people have no [career] alternatives. They should have the right to choose.
If one or two visually impaired people working in a certain industry signifies that the field is open [to employees with low vision], then this is the case for law and psychological counseling. Earlier this year, a blind woman registered for a certification exam to work as a teacher. Maybe begging and fortunetelling can also be counted as job options. But in general, 90 percent of visually impaired labor are massage professionals, and 3 percent are [piano] tuners.
A child with a visual impairment reads braille in Xingtai, Hebei province, April 23, 2017. Huang Tao/VCG
To be frank, if anyone conducted market research, more than 90 percent of blind masseuses would say they don’t want to do this job, especially the ones who have a strong educational background. Female masseuses may encounter problems with sexual harassment. The relatively high salaries — up to 20,000 yuan ($3,000) a month — are tied to long working hours.
A person should choose their job based on interest. The current concept of the “blind masseuse” is similar to the outdated term “housewife.” If women can awaken to the fact that they are not born simply to educate their children and take care of their husbands, visually impaired people should also realize that they can enter another profession.
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)
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