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Once Discriminated Against and Unemployed, These Visually Impaired Masseurs are the Talk of Mumbai Now

From the outside it may look like a regular spa, but step in and you will realize why it is special. The Metta spa, which gets its name from a Pali word translated as ‘loving kindness,’ only hires visually impaired masseurs. And for its kind and special owner, Joanita Figueredo, there is no greater joy than seeing her employees fulfil their ambitions in Mumbai, the city of dreams.

We all claim to be in favour of equal rights for the differently abled. But how many of us are able to go beyond words and risk everything we have, just to ensure that they get their due in society?

Mrs. Joanita Figueredo, founder of Metta Spa  (Pic Courtesy: Humans of Bombay)

According to UNICEF’s World Report on Disability, in 2002, only 37.6% of differently-abled people in India were employed. This was undoubtedly a far cry from the overall employment rate of 62.5% for the country — a clear indicator that the skills of differently abled individuals are not oft recognized or put to use. But then, there are people like Joanita who haven’t learnt to discriminate, and who judge people only on the basis of their talent.

It was a call from the National Association for the Blind (NAB) requesting her to teach their students foot reflexology that completely changed Joanita’s life, bringing her closer to some simple yet very talented souls.

Joanita had trained in foot reflexology at the Old Medicine Hospital in Chiang Mai, Thailand. On her return, however, she began to practice as a yoga teacher. “I used to charge just Rs 100 for an hour, so people started taking me for granted and I was kept waiting outside doors for a long time,” she says. “Many well-wishers asked me to hike my fee. Like they say in Mumbai, unless you are expensive you are not in demand. Once I increased my fees, I suddenly became one of the most sought after yoga teachers in town at the age of 43, so much so that I even managed to indulge in my love for diamonds with the fees,” Joanita chuckles. “Also, that was the time when I was approached by NAB to teach visually impaired students foot reflexology,” she adds.

The moment you ask Joanita about her students, her face lights up.

“Oh, I was in for a surprise when I went there. These visually impaired students were gifted, I just couldn’t stop going gaga over them. Perhaps not in theory, but in the practical tests they were extremely good. I wanted to give them 500 out of 100 each time and they were delighted on hearing that. Six months later another batch of students came in, but my older lot was still unemployed.”

However, all that the high-end spas in town had to offer were words of sympathy.

Visually Impaired Therapists at the Metta Spa
Visually Impaired Therapists at the Metta Spa

Joanita says, “My kids were not hip and happening like the other employees at these spas; they are from villages across the country. These spa owners probably thought visually impaired girls and boys wouldn’t fit in with the image of their parlours. But I was confident of their talent. So, overnight, in 2007, we decided to open a foot reflexology centre and I sold my diamonds to get the funds in place.”

Her students couldn’t believe that she was actually doing this. Joanita started small, with four employees, because she wasn’t sure if the idea would work. She borrowed Rs 20,000 from her husband to manage their salaries, paying four of them Rs 5000 each. But now, with higher salaries and commissions, her employees are able to afford a fairly good lifestyle. Today, there are 15 visually impaired masseurs in this spa located in a plush suburb of Mumbai.

Eight years ago, Joanita believed in the cause and her students. She embarked on this journey, not supporting them but with the help of their support and love. Today, she proudly claims that she is ‘successful.’

“It is not just a random massage we offer at the Metta foot spa, it has medical benefits too. And I assure you, once my employees ‘touch’ your feet, you will become their fan forever. My masseurs will not just pamper you but will also make you stress-free,” says Joanita, adding that the rates at her foot reflexology centre are amongst the lowest in town. A foot massage for 30 minutes costs just Rs 300 here.

A visit to the Metta spa will tell you that the employees are a happy lot.

The Metta Reflexology Spa team with Joanita (middle)
The Metta Reflexology Spa team with Joanita (middle)

We asked one of the masseurs who has worked with Joanita from the beginning if he liked it there,and with a big smile on his face he responded, “Here I am able to earn the money which will support me in my future. I am happy.” Joanita claims once they join, none of her employees want to leave her.

Today, the staff at Metta Spa can be seen at all the top hotels of the city, including Trident, Olives, etc. — be it at mehendi functions, birthday parties or corporate bashes. Joanita and her team’s services are a hit in many of the high profile circles in the city. So, when asked if she is content with what she is doing, Joanita wittily responds, “People often ask me this question. I tell them that not even the Ambanis or Tatas can afford to dine at 5-star hotels every day, and I get that chance daily because of my talented staff. What more can I ask for?”

“There is no greater joy than watching my employees book flats with their money, or seeing them take flights to their hometowns. I just feel happy to have helped them to achieve their goals in a small way,” says a satisfied Joanita.

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