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Massage therapist 'sees' through his hands

Photo by Kathy Jefcoats
Johnson also offers chair massages. The owner of the salon where he works, says, because he is blind, he is able to concentrate and focus better on giving a good massage, without being distracted.

Photo by Kathy Jefcoats Johnson also offers chair massages. The owner of the salon where he works, says, because he is blind, he is able to concentrate and focus better on giving a good massage, without being distracted.

His touch brings a smile to the faces of his clients, but massage therapist Darr Johnson can't see it.

Johnson, 32, was born with optic nerve atrophy. In short, the nerve that would allow him to see is damaged. That inability to see didn't stop Johnson from being part of the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes swim team, and traveling to Madrid, Spain for competition.

Or from playing trumpet and singing in school. Or, from graduating from Lovejoy High School. Or, from getting his certification as a massage therapist.

"When I was in Spain in 1998, I got my first sports massage, before and after, the swimming event," said Johnson. "It really felt good, and I thought, 'Hey, I can do this.'"

After high school, Johnson enrolled at Georgia Medical Institute to achieve that goal. His mother, and other students, read to him, and then he'd study the materials in Braille.

"It was challenging to learn the muscles of the body," he said.

Somehow, Johnson became a guinea pig for his instructor and fellow students.

"It was great, I got massages from everyone in the class," said Johnson. "It really helped me with technique. I pay attention to the style of the therapist giving me a massage, and I picked up a lot from the professor and other students."

Johnson finished in nine months.

"There were no delays," he said. "I finished when everyone else did."

Johnson provided massages in a string of clinics and spas before clicking with Nu-Dawn Beauty Salon in Jonesboro. Owner Vicki McIntyre was immediately taken with the well-groomed young man.

"I just really liked everything about him," she said. "He is clean-cut, well-spoken, funny, nice, has a good sense of humor."

Johnson's vision impairment was not an obstacle for McIntyre.

"My first thought was that he would be better, because he can completely concentrate on what he's doing," she said. "He isn't going to be distracted by anything."

Having a massage therapist who can't see may also be a plus for clients who are self-conscious of their bodies. Despite not being able to see, Johnson leaves the room to let the client undress and get on the table.

"He's very professional," said McIntyre. "He handles the visit as if he can see."

He carries his massage oil in a plastic pump bottle in a holster on his right hip, so it is easily accessible during the treatment. He also incorporates hot stones into his massages, an added extra for which most therapists charge more.

McIntyre swears he's got the magic touch.

"I really believe it's a gift from God," she said.

Joan Woodward Hicks agrees. In the early 1950s, she contracted childhood polio from the Jonesboro pool. The condition contributed to the onset of fibromyalgia in her later years. She endured 25 years of weekly physical therapy. When her massage options dwindled to nothing, Hicks discovered Johnson.

"He has saved my life, I can't go without it," said Hicks. "God has gifted his hands, he senses what's there by touch."

Listening to Hicks sing his praises, Johnson grinned.

"That's pretty good," he said. "I do feel like I have that special gift, to be able to help others. I feel like I am in tune to the body. I can feel the tensions. I think massage can be very creative, it's like an art."

Hicks is one of his regular clients. In addition to his clientele at Nu-Dawn, Johnson takes private appointments at his home, or the client's. At Nu-Dawn, he is offering $10 off his $60, one-hour massage, for Valentine's Day, which includes the hot stone therapy. The salon also offers a $250 massage package –– five, one-hour massages for $50 each.

But life isn't all massage oil and hot stones. Johnson is a member of First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, where he sings in the choir. He and McIntyre walk the salon's parking lot for exercise. He volunteers at the Morrow Tourist Center, and gives massages to residents at an assisted-living complex.

For more information on the hair salon, and the spa services it offers, access www.nudawnbeautysalon.com.