My Suffolk Life - I'm Ipswich's only blind male masseuse
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Many of us have dreams of following our passions and starting our own company or side hustle.
But what if starting a business was the only way to pick yourself up?
That’s exactly what happened to Justin Ballantyne.
As a teenager, Justin began to lose his sight. By 24, he was legally registered blind.
But now, 38 years old, the Ipswich resident has just celebrated one year of his holistic massage business, The Blind Touch, which he credits with helping him come off benefits and establish a more independent life for himself.
“I started losing my vision when I was 17 due to a condition called uveitis,” he explains.
Uveitis is inflammation of the middle layer of the eye, called the uvea or uveal tract. It causes eye pain and changes to a person’s vision, and can often lead to problems later down the line such as glaucoma or cataracts.
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“It came on overnight and was gradual. By the time I was 21, I was visually impaired, and when I was 24, I was registered blind.”
Justin was given his first guide dog, and ultimately had to leave behind his flourishing career as a carer.
“By my early 20s, I had to come out of work as it was unsafe, and I was unable to find a paid job afterwards,” he says.
“By that point, I’d managed to work my way up to a senior level, but it so was difficult to come away from that and be told you can’t help people anymore.”
Not one to rest on his laurels however, Justin made the move to Hereford, where he studied at The Royal National College for the Blind.
“Obviously with losing my vision, I adapted to my other senses and soon learnt how to use them more efficiently. And what better way than to use touch to continue to help and heal people?”
Justin enrolled onto the college’s massage and complementary therapies course, and left with a Level 3 qualification.
Upon completion, he was eager to get back on his feet – and soon put the wheels in motion to set up his own business.
"Once I lost my sight, it became impossible for me to find paid employment, so the main goal was to therefore employ myself. Up until then, I’d be working voluntarily for organisations, and I thought myself ‘why can’t I get paid for the work I’m doing?”
Armed with his qualifications, and a supportive circle of friends and family, Justin established The Blind Touch in Ipswich – and things have since gone from strength-to-strength, despite a rocky start.
“I qualified and had everything set up in 2019, but shortly after that I had surgery on my hand. And by the time I was healed, Covid hit. So I had to wait another year before I could officially open the doors. But it’s all finally paid off.
“I had friends and family assist me at the start, as I needed help reading and looking at some things, but I've since kept it going on my own. I definitely wouldn’t be here though if it wasn’t for them.”
He is now hoping to get help from Access to Work, enabling him to become more mobile and reach a wider base. He adds: “It will also help me with the admin and finance side of things, which will give me more time to provide my services.”
Justin currently offers customers full body massages – but is looking to undergo additional training so he can provide Indian head massages and pregnancy massages.
“I’d also love to get to the point where I can teach and train others, visually impaired or not. I’m still in touch with some of the guys I trained with, so I’d love to get them involved at some point so we can help each other out.”
The Blind Touch celebrated its one-year anniversary on Thursday, June 9 - and has been subject to nothing but rave reviews.
“I’ve been busy since I started, and I’m still getting new customers every week. I’ve got around 50 on the books at the moment, with many people coming from the NHS, and the local triathlon club here in Ipswich. There’s even people who drive to me from up to two hours away, thanks to word-of-mouth.”
The sky is the limit for Justin - and he feels part of his success is down to his sight impairment.
“What should’ve been the most negative part of my life – losing my vision – has now become my positive.
“My blindness is now my selling point, and I find it brings people in who otherwise might be too afraid to get a massage. They might have stretch marks or scars, but when they find out I can’t see, it brings them in. The last year has certainly been a rollercoaster ride, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.”
To find out more about Justin and The Blind Touch, visit facebook.com/theblindtouch