IN December last year, blind massage therapists from Zamboanga City traveled all the way to Cagayan de Oro City to take licensing exams.
They took the nearly 500-km journey because their jobs were on the line. But Typhoon Ruby (Hagupit) struck, and they were told to go home.
No exams meant no licenses. Now they are in danger of losing their jobs because an order on licensing issued by the Department of Health (DOH) in 2010 is now in force.
Administrative Order 2010-0034imposes a blanket licensing requirement for those who want to be massage therapists, whether blind or sighted.
The intentions may be good, but advocates call it a violation of the law and protest its implications for thousands who are blind and without adequate livelihood opportunities, and who look to massage therapy as their source of income.
“Yung mga therapists, nangangam ba po sila [Blind massage therapists are worried],” Jojo Maraguinot of the Zamboanga City-based Vision Impaired Society Toward Advancement Inc. said in a phone interview.
To secure a license, one should first enroll in a DOH-accredited training center. That training would of course cost them money. Applicants must also undergo a two-part examination, a theoretical test and then, should they pass this, a practical test.
Signed by former Health Secretary Enrique Ona in December 2010, the order aims to “improve the quality of health service delivery of governing massage facilities providing massage services.”
Maraguinot said this set-up creates problems particularly for the marginalized blind people who may not be in a position to apply for a license.
“In Mindanao, tuition alone costs P8,500 or more,” he said, adding that a massage therapist is lucky to have an income of P3,500 a month.
The Health department order sets only one day in June and another day in December as examination dates, except in extraordinary cases.
“Not everyone can comply with the order, especially the unschooled and the marginalized,” Maraguinot said.
“Threatening siya sa livelihood. Instead na matulungan iyong mga blind . . . ma-discourage na sila kasi high expense na siya eh [It really threatens livelihood opportunities for the blind. Instead of helping them become massage therapists, it might be a deterrent because of the expenses involved],” he added.
The licensing requirement was issued in 2010 and was to take effect in January 2011 but Dr. Josephine Hipolito of the DOH Committee of Examiners for Massage Therapy (CEMT) said the lack of licensed massage therapists (LMT) back then made them defer its implementation.
The CEMT has the power to issue, as well as deny or cancel, licenses to massage therapists.
It is also tasked to investigate complaints against massage therapists, and accredits institutions or massage trainers.
The country now has 8,900 LMTs while 5,600 more are undergoing examinations, Hipolito said.
Thousands of blind massage therapists, however, may just lose their jobs, said PWD leader Ronnel del Rio, calling the DOH order a violation of Presidential Decree 856 or the Code on Sanitation of the Philippines.
“The violation has resulted in several abuses of the department and one of them is the threat to more than 5,000 Filipino blind massage therapists,” said del Rio, also a United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP) Promoter for Making the Right Real for PWDs.
“Massage therapy is the No. 1 income-generating opportunity for the Filipino blind; hence, our concerns and issues must be part of the total regulation of the industry,” he added.
In support of blind massage therapists, AGAP Partylist Rep. Rico B. Geron filed in November House Resolution 1691 urging the DOH to exempt from the order those from the sector provided they are legitimate members of cooperatives.
“DOH deliberately deprived the blind massage therapists their right to a decent occupation,” the resolution read.
The same document said while blind massage therapists would like to comply with the DOH directive, “they cannot, because it requires that only sighted individuals can act in accordance with the said order.”
The DOH, Hipolito said, has no objection to the House resolution.
“However, we would like to raise the issue on who will be liable or accountable if and when these blind therapists would encounter untoward incidents,” she added.
A House inquiry into the issue is tentatively set at the end of the month. Blind therapists are also considering filing a case questioning the order before the Supreme Court in March, Hipolito said.
This story is part of VERA Files’ Reporting on Persons with Disabilities project supported by The Asia Foundation and Australian Aid. VERA Files is published by veteran Filipino journalists taking a deeper look into current Philippine issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”