The right touch: Legally blind student pursues calling in massage therapy

Anne Osborne is a legally blind massage student at MTTI Wellspring, which has a Lawrence campus at 947 N.H. She recently practiced her technique on fellow student Sharee Riley.

Anne Osborne was formerly a part-time reporter in Topeka before deciding to study massage therapy.

If everything goes her way, this will be the last Valentine’s Day Anne Osborne will have free for a while.

She’d like to think that come this time next year, she’ll be so booked up with work she won’t have any time for noshing on candy hearts.

She’ll need her hands to rub the backs of those whose loved ones also skipped the candy aisle.

Osborne, 28, is studying to be a massage therapist at the Lawrence campus of MTTI-Wellspring, 947 N.H. She thinks that despite the sagging economy, people will always want to use massage to rid themselves of the stress of everyday life. She imagines dozens of happy regular clients helping her get the life she wants by doing something she loves.

But if that dream does come to life, she’ll have to be content with the smiles she sees in her head, rather than the ones of her actual clients.

Osborne is legally blind.

She sees shadows, light and dark. She describes the sensation in a way that recalls the harmless monsters created by shadows in a child’s darkened room — it’s hard to say what something is, but she knows that something is there.

“I always say that I can see you, but I can’t tell that you’re a person,” says Osborne, who brings her service dog, Mesa, with her to class.

In the world of massage therapy, that very challenge could put her ahead because she’s never had to rely on her eyes to gage a situation. Instead, her sense of touch helps her to find tension on a client.

“It was something that I think I can do because I’m touch-oriented — so, I’m kind of working and playing to my strengths. I know my world mostly through touch and sound, of course,” Osborne says. “So it was something that I already had skill at. It was just refining the skill, which I figured I could do.”

Susie Roman, Osborne’s basic Swedish massage instructor, says that once refined, there’s no reason the Topeka resident’s touch skills shouldn’t make her a well-informed massage therapist.

“I have known of other blind therapists, and they have been superior to other therapists because they have to be a little bit more intuitive to what’s going on,” Roman says. “So I do feel that she does have a slight advantage actually over us in the future.”

A handful of independence

Osborne isn’t exactly the kind who likes advantages — she’d rather take on a challenge. Before starting school at MTTI-Wellspring in January, Osborne worked in a field that wasn’t so touch-oriented as it was deadline-oriented: the newspaper industry. She spent more than two years as a part-time reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal.

She covered everything from downed traffic signs — her favorite, she jokes — to presidential election coverage for the counties in the paper’s circulation area.

Of all the stories she wrote, one stuck with her — a write-up on MTTI-Wellspring, when the school put a satellite campus in Topeka. Headed back to the newsroom to write, she filed the possibility of massage therapy in the back of her mind. It wasn’t until later, on a family cruise, that the idea came back to her.

“It wasn’t that I said, ‘Wow, I want to do this for the rest of my life!’ … it was more that I looked at the kind of life that I wanted to live, which is making enough money to be comfortable and be able to go on a cruise if I want to,” she says. “And then I looked at the life I was living, which was as a part-timer reporter. I had never gotten a raise, didn’t really enjoy everything I covered.”

New options

She began to research her schooling options, and MTTI-Wellspring came back into the front of her mind. The school had moved its satellite campus to Lawrence in 2008, but her father, Bill, didn’t mind driving his daughter to class, especially if it meant she would get her what she wants most in life — independence. Plus, her mother, Donna, has become the recipient of free massages each week as her daughter practices at home.

“Being disabled, I’ve learned to be independent,” Osborne says. “I was kind of living under my parents’ auspices (while a journalist), and I don’t like that at all. That’s another reason why I decided to … do something that would bring in enough money that I would be independent, which is nice for me and them.”

Also adding to the independence is the ability to set her own schedule, and if she gets hired by a clinic, the chance to have her own massage room — something that would be easy to get around because it would always be the same.

“As it stands right now, my biggest worry is reaching under the sheet and hoping I grab what I should,” she says, laughing.