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That Physical Touch

Out of darkness, deliverance for a woman who doesn't hear, speak or see

September 14, 1997|Mark Miller

A career in communication may seem an unlikely choice for a woman who doesn't see, hear or speak, but it makes perfect sense to Kathleen Potter. Potter, 51, communicates through touch--reading Braille and using sign language--and for the past 10 years has earned her living through touch, working as a massage therapist certified in Swedish and deep-tissue massage.

At 9, Potter was found to have Usher's syndrome, which usually causes deafness in the early years and often leads to blindness, which occurred by the time she was 39.

At an Usher's syndrome workshop, she learned that massage is a career traditionally chosen by the Asian blind, and she began training at the Culver City Institute of Psycho-Structural Balancing, using textbooks translated into Braille and improvising in the classroom. (She volunteered to have massage strokes demonstrated on her or placed her hands over the instructor's to memorize the movements.)

Upon graduating, Potter found massage practitioners wary of hiring her. After stints at a health spa and a chiropractor's office, she applied to the Massage Therapy Center (MTC) in West Los Angeles, home to 40 massage therapists and 20,000 clients. Although MTC director Ahmos Netanel was impressed with her massage technique, she did not make the cut until a year later, when she reapplied and showed considerable improvement.

In Netanel, a massage therapist and former commander in the Israeli paratroopers unit, Potter found a powerful advocate. He reassured skittish clients, urging them to try her because her hands are so sensitive. She communicates with them through an interpreter before the session--for a deeper massage, they are told to squeeze her wrist; for a lighter touch, brush the top of her hand; to convey other requests, print block letters in her palm.

Netanel refers to Potter as "a very special soul." Potter herself simply asks: "Just communicate with me--I'm not going to eat you up."

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