Blindness no barrier to massage therapist

MIDDLEBURY — Just another day at the office for Steven Fidler.
He welcomes a client into his massage and hypnotherapy office in Middlebury and motions him over to the comfy, cushioned table.
Fidler can hear the client getting ready. But don’t ask him to describe the person whose stress he will be spending the next hour removing.
Steven Fidler is blind.
Blind, but tremendously adept at a craft he has honed without the benefit of eyesight.
“It’s about listening and feeling,” Fidler said in an interview on Monday.
Fidler lost his sight rather suddenly in 1993, at the age of 23. He had been diagnosed at age 4 with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare, genetic disorder that breaks down cells in the retina, a light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of the eyeball. Blindness had always been in the cards for Fidler, but he believes darkness enveloped his world sooner than it should have.
“It wasn’t supposed to take my sight until I was 60 or 70 years old,” Fidler said. “I never thought it could possibly do it that early.”
He had just earned a business degree from Geneva College in Western Pennsylvania when his world got smaller.
Blindness was a hell of a graduation present.
Suddenly, he no longer felt the unbridled optimism of a young graduate with unlimited career options. Fidler’s existence shrank to the four walls of his room.
“There came that ‘dark night of the soul’ when I got really depressed, had anxiety attacks,” Fidler recalled. “I couldn’t really leave the house for two years. My weight got up to over 300 pounds.”
Neither his family nor most of his friends could relate to what he was going through. Not a lot of positive reinforcement. It became a matter of living a solitary life amid diminished expectations.
“My family thought my life was pretty much over,” Fidler said. “So I kind of agreed. I didn’t know what else to do. It was scary.”
Fortunately, Fidler had an epiphany that brought him out of the doldrums and onto a new path of self-sufficiency.
“I had to come to a turning point,” he recalled. “I figured I was either going to die, or come back.”
He came back, and it began with a renewed commitment to physical fitness. He dove — rather recklessly, he admits — into strenuous workouts.
“I went home and I worked out as hard as I could, from that day on,” Fidler said. “I was either going to go out, or I was coming back.”
It took him about a decade to crawl out of the proverbial abyss and into a more healthy lifestyle with solid career plans. He made Seattle the next stop in his life’s journey. Fidler wanted a change of scenery and a fresh start in the business world.
Unfortunately, corporate doors did not open for a man in his early 30s, without sight or much of a resumé. His options were largely limited to minimum wage jobs. And transportation was a problem. A big problem. When you’re blind, you can’t drive, and public transportation is hard to use without a companion.
Instead of descending back into depression, Fidler decided to change his professional game plan. Having been athletic as a youth, he decided to transition to massage therapy. He enrolled at the Cortivo School in Seattle to become a certified massage therapist.
“At the time, it was the best (massage therapy) school in the country,” Fidler said. “But they weren’t really prepared to teach a blind student.”
Indeed, the notion of a blind massage therapist seemed implausible to some of the faculty members. How would he absorb course material? How would he be able to recognize the inter-relationship between muscles without seeing them in action? Would his lack of sight present barriers between therapist and client?
Some teachers didn’t want to deal with Fidler’s disability.
Fortunately, others did.
Fidler fondly recalled a student assistant and a handful of Cortivo teachers who gave him the guidance and special assistance he needed to complete the 750 hours required to become a certified massage therapist. He memorized lectures, as note taking was not an option. He got some special audio and computer-related tools to assimilate more knowledge.
“A couple of the teachers saw my potential, and they are the ones who really saved me,” Fidler said with a smile. “They were building new curriculum on the fly.”
Fidler’s learning had to be kinesthetic — hands-on, out of necessity, since his blindness precluded visual cues.
And nothing can really take the place of practicing on a person.
“You are taught technique, but it is so different than that in real practice,” Fidler said. “When you can’t see it, you sort of ‘feel it.’ The more you feel it, the more habitually you go deeper into feeling it. It becomes sort of a meditation where I’m not thinking of anything else; I’m deeply into the tissue. The world goes away, and people tend to go on that journey with me.”
He also learned hypnotherapy under a Seattle-based practitioner named Jack Elias.
“His approach fully synthesized Buddhist practice with hypnosis,” Fidler said.
Hypnotherapy, Fidler explained, seeks to dispel any limiting thought a person might have that is holding them back from living a more true life, whether it be fear of public speaking, alcoholism, or any other kind of self-defeating behavior.
“It’s about examining a person’s limits, and expanding them,” he said.
Fundamentals in hand, Fidler made his way back east — first to Pennsylvania.
It was a relatively short stop.
“I found the same kinds of dead ends,” he said of the lack of moral support and opportunities. “I couldn’t get a start. There was no way forward.”
Until he imagined a life in Vermont, a state with a national reputation for acceptance and helping others. He had previously visited the Green Mountain State, where he had family.
“I just loved the area,” he said.
Fidler was welcomed to the Middlebury area with open arms by his family and members of Vermont’s martial arts community. Martial arts movement, Fidler explained, helped him increase his range of motion.
“People didn’t treat me like an outsider here,” Fidler said. “There was no awkwardness or avoidance.”
He knew he wanted to open his own massage/hypnotherapy business, and got some key assistance from state and local human services officials. Folks at Addison Community Action/Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity helped him successfully apply for a $5,000 business start-up grant. Three years ago, he opened Steven Fidler Massage and Hypnotherapy at 12 Court St.
It’s been a dream come true for Fidler, who has built up a loyal clientele. His schedule is around 65 percent full, so there’s room for more. He has many repeat customers.
“There is a curiosity factor to it,” Fidler admitted of the novelty of going to a blind massage therapist.
But after receiving one treatment, most come back.
“There is a difference,” he said.
Ironically, his “disability” has proven to be an undeniable asset in honing his craft, he said.
With no visual distractions, Fidler can focus fully on the task at hand — relieving stress in his clients.
The loss of one sense has heightened the acuity of others: Including his hearing and sense of touch.
“I would not have been able to understand the tremendous upsides to blindness,” Fidler said. “It’s not something I saw at the beginning, because I defined (blindness) as such a limiting idea. It’s not different or better; it’s such a different way of moving through the world.”
Fidler has memorized the layout of his massage/hypnotherapy room. He confidently gets his clients settled onto the massage table. He reaches out to clients with the backs of his hands to remove any trepidation they might have about accidentally being touched in a wrong spot.
He also believes his blindness can help ease the sense of embarrassment or modesty some clients might feel.
“There is no judgment here,” he said. “They don’t have to worry about body issues.”
Once he gets started, Fidler doesn’t get caught up in a specific routine. He said his sense of touch — and of course the client — let him how he should attack the person’s stress areas.
“You’re not thinking as much about a pattern (of treatment),” Fidler said. “You are, in real time, moving through the work and are not distracted by anything. There’s a different level of focus.
“You can feel it all the way to the bone, just by lightly touching,” he added. “I would not have expected so many upsides to not seeing.”
Tammy Burnette had been looking for 28 years before finding a massage therapist like Fidler. In a testimonial, she called Fidler’s technique “magic.”
“I have never come away from any of his massages sore,” she wrote in an email. “I have a very sensitive body; some massage therapists would leave me sore for days after. Steven has worked with me for months now. He has released many spots on my body that have bothered me for years.”
Trust goes both ways in Fidler’s relationship with his clients. Being blind and without administrative support, Fidler takes payment by cash or check. So it’s the honor system. He provides clients with the necessary paperwork if they are eligible for reimbursement through their insurance companies.
Ron Crawford has been one of Fidler’s clients for almost two years. Now in his 70s, Crawford has tried many massage therapists. He praised Fidler for his skill and intellectual understanding of the craft he practices.
“You don’t deal with him as a blind person; you deal with him as a gifted person,” Crawford said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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