Blind World Magazine

Blind Massage Therapist relies on his sense of touch.

September 13, 2005.
San Antonio Express, Texas.

CAPTION: Tim Gutierrez is a registered massage therapist despite being legally blind. He was born with macular degeneration, but that did not stop him from finding a line of work he enjoyed. (Photos by Kin Man Hui/Express-News)

When Tim Gutierrez gently places his large hands on someone's shoulders, he feels more than skin or muscles, more than the warmth of his body or the cloth of her shirt.

He feels the person's energy.

Gutierrez is a registered massage therapist, kneading and rubbing away the tension from his clients' bodies. He's also legally blind.

Born with a visual acuity of 20/200, Gutierrez, 32, can see most large objects but can't read the print in this article. He can't drive to work or discern his clients' facial features. But he believes that, rather than hampering him, his disability actually enhances his skills.

It's even the slogan for his one-man business, Calming Effect.

"What I always say is, 'Feel the heightened awareness of one who truly relies on his sense of touch,'" he explains. "Massage seems to lend itself to visually impaired people."

Although it's a myth that the absence of one sense makes the other senses stronger, it is true that a person missing one of the senses is forced to use the others more in compensation, according to Nancy Stout, Gutierrez's counselor at the Division for Blind Services, formerly the Texas Commission for the Blind. For example, a blind or visually impaired person tends to be more aware of, and focused on, the sense of touch.

Gutierrez was born with macular degeneration, a condition affecting the macula, the central part of the retina responsible for detailed central vision. Although the problem usually affects the elderly, both of Gutierrez's parents had a recessive gene for the rare condition, causing two of their six children to be born with it.

An interest in martial arts initially led Gutierrez to massage. As a teenager, he took classes in aikido, a technique that emphasizes not kicks and chops but using energy to control opponents. He learned about body mechanics and chi, energy, and how to promote the flow of that energy through the body.

"Martial arts really did lay the groundwork, oddly enough, for massage," he says. "I was always right on target in locating pressure points."

Stout helped him get his basic training, take the state exam and obtain the items needed to set up his own business.

The first stop was St. Philip's College, where Gutierrez began studying massage therapy in the fall of 2002. There was another visually impaired student in the class, a woman, and they often chose to partner up during in-class practice.

He had to use aids such as audio books and closed-circuit television to magnify text and diagrams; otherwise, he took to the discipline with ease.

"I felt called to it. It seemed I had a knack for it," he says.

In addition to getting his certification and passing the state-licensing exam, Gutierrez studied reiki, which uses energy to assist the body in healing processes and maintain health.

Gutierrez gives full-body massages at Ageless Beauty Skin Care and Mini-Spa and chair massages at Viva Bookstore and Central Market. His work helps support his 9-year-old son and his wife, who often drives him to his jobs.

Clad in black scrubs, his long brown hair pulled into a ponytail, Gutierrez presses the muscles up and down the back of a client in his chair at Viva on a recent Tuesday afternoon.

"Breathe into my hands," he instructs. He uses a variety of techniques of Swedish massage, including pounding, tapping and vibrating.

A large man, Gutierrez is soft-spoken and gentle. His soft brown eyes betray no hint of his condition. The only clue is his tendency to look to the side of a person's head, relying on his peripheral vision to see the face. He can identify people based on distinctive characteristics: their voices, general body shape, clothes or hair.

He places energy on that list of unique qualities.

"If I place my hand on someone, I'd get a feel for their energy. Strong or not strong," he says. "Everyone's is different. There's varying degrees of warmth and strength."

He compares it to feeling the resistance between two opposing magnets. "That's their core."

Like most good massage therapists, he can also detect tension in the muscles, the condition of the muscles and the shape of the body - or "the bodyscape," as he poetically calls it. If a person is remarkably free of tension, he can feel that, too.

"Some people, it's clear they meditate or get massages all the time," he says.

There are some instances in which full vision is helpful for someone in his line of work. Massage therapists need to know about skin conditions that might contraindicate a massage, for example. They should avoid massaging a client if they recognize acne on the back or shoulders, for example, or any swollen or red skin.

Because he's not completely blind, Gutierrez can usually spot these problems; however; completely blind massage therapists can simply ask the client beforehand.

Yolanda Clifton, the owner of Ageless Beauty Skin Care and Mini-Spa, says she believes Gutierrez's visual impairment has made him a gifted therapist. In addition, some clients are glad to have a massage therapist who can't see every bodily imperfection.

"Sometimes they're even more relaxed because he is (legally blind)," Clifton says. "Women are a little hesitant and a little shy. They think, 'I don't want a massage done by a man.' Because of his vision impairment, they feel a little more comfortable."

It's just one factor that has helped Gutierrez parlay his disability into an advantage.

"He's a very good role model. He's positive and upfront about his disability and very comfortable with it," Stout says. "He just loves what he's doing, and he's very good at it."

Gutierrez, who describes himself as spiritual person, said of his genetic condition, "It must have happened for a reason, I hope, (to force me) to tap into other resources. Maybe there's a karmic lesson in it for me, too."

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