Blind man's vision turns disability into social enterprise

published March 16, 2014 - MST Sunday - Busines

Dante Tiosan’s dream was to be a CPA-lawyer. He started his accounting studies and was one semester away from his degree when he was struck by a very high fever which damaged his optic nerves. His sight started failing until all he had was a slight perception of light.
“It took me five years to accept my blindness,” he says.
It was this condition that led Tiosan to explore and pursue other dreams instead. Decades later, Tiosan became the man behind VIBES—the first and only enterprise that offers therapeutic massage by the blind.
A change of plans
Tiosan says concern, compassion
and commitment are what have
sustained VIBES for more than
20 years.
Tiosan did not finish his accounting studies but he took the civil service examination and eventually became an employee of the National Vocational Rehabilitation Center of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. He became a massage trainer, teaching dozens under the government’s free training program for the blind.
He noted though that nothing much happened after the training. The blind remained unemployed. Tiosan was bothered by this and sought to do more to help his former students. They organized caroling activities during the Christmas season and divided their earnings among members of the group. Soon, Tiosan had the idea of setting aside 20 percent of their money to serve as their capital.
With P8,000 in 1992, Tiosan felt they had enough to start a home-service massage venture, renting an apartment on Harrison Street in Pasay that served as their booking office. The following year, they set up a massage clinic in Guadalupe, Makati. It was here they met a member of then-President Fidel Ramos’ Presidential Management Staff who took note of what they were doing and encouraged them to submit a proposal to gain support.
A few years later, Tiosan had the idea of writing the domestic airport to inquire whether they could set up shop there. They got a yes. They eventually tried to get some space at a local mall—Ever Gotesco Ortigas. Everybody in the organization chipped in to raise capital, and the results were also good.
Over the next few years VIBES— Visually-Impaired Brotherhood for Excellent Services—built its branches in Cainta, Cubao, Quezon City, Pasay, Antipolo, Mandaluyong, Las Piñas, Fairview, Valenzuela and Bulacan, among others. It now has 51 branches.
A thriving enterprise
Tiosan wanted to bring therapeutic massage to communities. This is so that the blind do not have to travel very far to attend to their customers. People would also be able to save on costs because there is almost always a VIBES massage clinic near them.
Tiosan and his management team, all blind
or visually impaired
This strategy and the relatively lower prices have enabled VIBES to reach out to customers from all walks of life.
The bulk of the customers used to be middle-aged to senior citizens. Recent trends, however, show an increasing number of young adults availing themselves of the massages. VIBES has been hired by some call centers to provide on-site services as part of the non-cash benefits for their employees.
Tiosan’s friend, Angelino Pangan, a social worker who has been blind since childhood, opted for early retirement in 2004. Since then, Pangan has been helping Tiosan manage the growing venture by providing HR support.
But the human resource issues are not just about the customers. “You also have to deal with different personalities of the blind,” Pangan says, citing that they have diverse temperaments and backgrounds. “You have the schooled and unschooled. Some are oversensitive. Believe it or not, we have former professionals who went blind after an accident. We’ve had a former priest, policeman, midwife, nurse, engineer.”
Of course, the primary qualification is being totally or partially blind. They also work with visually-impaired individuals, specifically those discriminated upon even though they can see. The masseurs and masseuses also need to be physically fit as giving massages can be exhausting and demanding.
While the sympathy factor is partly a reason for VIBES’ success, Tiosan says what gives them staying power is the quality of the massages that they give.
“We train our blind well. We use what we call a synergistic approach —a combination of Japanese shiatsu, European Swedish, Western reflexology, Chinese acupressure and of course Pinoy hilot,” according to Tiosan. “We place emphasis on thumb pressure, and that is what makes us different from other spa businesses. The sense of touch of a blind person is so powerful and precise.”
A common objective
One major challenge for VIBES is the marketing of their services. “We do not go for television or radio because they cost a lot of money. We simply put up posters telling customers about other locations.”
VIBES has gained considerable success through word-of-mouth. “I guess we have some really satisfied customers out there, because we are still growing,” Pangan adds.
But it is really the structure that sets VIBES apart from other businesses. “VIBES is not just owned by a single person or a few who profit from the hard work of the blind. Rather, ownership is common,” says Tiosan.
“In our organization, we have about 520 masseurs/masseuses and 280 owners. The part-owners contribute using their personal assets. When we do well, everybody benefits.”
He says that many of the part-owners were able to build modest homes and acquire simple cars. They have enabled their children to finish their studies. The masseurs and masseuses also earn for their families and even plan for their retirement.
Extraordinary vision
In January this year, VIBES opened up to franchises with the guidance of the Philippine Franchise Corp. “We are reaching out to people with sufficient capital and who want to build on the brand name that we have nurtured over the years,” Tiosan says. Three of the current 51 branches are franchises.
But while Tiosan’s group will provide the training for all staff (“You have to synchronize the skills so that you offer consistent quality of service”) as well as the design of the clinics, it will be the franchisees who will build the relationships. “They have to have a sincere desire to help the blind. This is not just a moneymaking venture,” he says.
According to Tiosan, generating jobs for the disabled is not something the government has been able to do. “That is why we are stepping in, to fill that gap,” he says. He estimates that 1 percent of Filipinos— 990,000 in a country of 99 million—are visually impaired.
“That’s still so many lives to touch,” he says.
Tiosan says they are reaching out to three types of audiences: customers who want to de-stress through quality massage, blind individuals who want to be productive, and people with capital who want to channel their funds to something worthy.
Tiosan and his group also prepare to expand to Visayas and Mindanao in the coming months and years. “We want to send a strong message. In other countries, the blind just wait for their pensions and expect their families to take care of them. But the Filipino blind are different,” he says.
They are different because they can be enabled to take care of themselves and their families. They can find dignity in their work despite their condition. “To be blind does not mean you have to be a burden to your family or community,” Tiosan says.
He also envisions a one-stop shop, an entire building which would house a training center, an office, a haven for the retired and a home for the blind aged, and a sports and music center.
Then again, Tiosan is the first to admit that others need to replicate what they are doing because his team at VIBES cannot do it all. “We’re senior citizens now,” he says.
“We’ve been called ‘social entrepreneurs’ and some other fancy names, he says. But we are really just helping the blind help themselves,” he says.
VIBES holds office at JEK Building, Ortigas Avenue Extension, Cainta, Rizal. Tiosan’s team may be reached at 0922-8423701 and 348-3401.