A choir of blind children from the Bethel residential home in suburban Beijing sing at a charity concert held last year. Mike Peters / China Daily
I once made a blind man cry. It was one of those days when my cellphone wouldn't stop ringing. After a series of calls from the important to the trivial - including two nuisance calls during dinner - I was heading for an end-of-the-day massage in Nanjing. It was at one of those studios with blind masseurs, in a room with six tables, and I had just climbed onto my table when the phone rang again.
I quickly rolled off the other side, and stepped in the hall so as not to disturb the other customers. Like an idiot, I waved at my masseur and held up one finger, the "universal" sign that means "one minute".
Of course, it meant nothing to my masseur, and as I stood out in the hall to complete my call, I heard a plaintive wail from inside the massage room. My masseur was in a frightened panic: He knew I'd been on the table - and now he'd lost me.
I'm deeply shamed by the episode in hindsight, but it comes to mind often when I hear people talk about blind people doing massage in China. Does their lack of vision mean their other senses are more keenly honed - to a level of extraordinary perception?
That's the prevailing mystique, that these masseurs have heightened senses not in spite of their blindness but because of it.
While not all champions of the blind massage industry in China support that idea, many contend this is valuable work a blind person can do well, providing the dignity of a job and some independence. Critics say there's little independence in the deal, that blind people are funneled into the massage or music industries as their only options, with small salaries, communal housing and little assistance in daily life. Many advocates for the visually impaired say the "special powers" of blind masseurs are romanticized to make us all feel better about taking advantage of these folks.
I've been ambivalent about the idea, dubious that all blind folks can muster extrasensory gifts - though something in me always wants it to be true. Some blind people may indeed have the touch, but is it nature or nurture?
Enter Daniel Kish, president of World Access for the Blind. Recently featured on CNN on a show hosted by Dr Sanjay Gupta, Kish is one of the champions of "echo-locating".