Cosmetologist Chris Bingham, who plans to open a salon designed especially for the mobility impaired, has multiple sclerosis and must use a motor scooter occasionally.

Cosmetologist Chris Bingham, who plans to open a salon designed especially for the mobility impaired, has multiple sclerosis and must use a motor scooter occasionally. 

On July 26, 1990, President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which, he said, would allow disabled people to “pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom.” The ADA, he added, would ensure equal opportunity for disabled people in employment as well as create equal access to public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunication systems.

This law means that salon owners now will have to consider disabled people in hiring and business practices. Catering to this segment of the population not only will keep the salon on the right side of the law, but is simply a sensible business practice. Handicapped workers are among the most dedicated and loyal employees. And, the 43 million disabled American consumers have money to spend – but they’ll spend it in your salon only if they can get to it.

Opening your salon doors to the handicapped means opening floor space for wheelchairs, opening up employment opportunities for handicapped nail technicians, and, most important, opening your mind.

Being Handicapped

Understanding the experience of handicapped people will help the salon owner or nail technician discover how she can accommodate them as employees and as clients. For example, disabled nail technicians and hairstylists going to school and taking state board exams must make their own adjustments to compensate for their disabilities.

Chris Bingham, a cosmetologist from Wall, N.J. has multiple sclerosis, which requires her to use a motor scooter on occasion. “I went to school on my scooter because at the time my health was not great,” she says. “It wasn’t always easy. A lot of people couldn’t understand why, if I couldn’t stand up all the time, I would go into that career. I couldn’t pump up hydraulic chairs with my feet, so a teacher there designed a tool for me to pump up the chair up with my hands, which sometimes hurt me because the muscles in the legs are bigger than those in the arms and back.”

When it came time to take her stake board exam, Bingham passed the practical with a score of 98. In addition, she was named the 1990 Cosmetology Student of the Year.

Looking back, Bingham realizes she not only had to deal with her disability, but also the attitudes of people around her. “If I had listened to people, I wouldn’t have done this,” she says. “My rehabilitation vocational counselor said I was too intelligent to become a hairdresser and that only bimbos go to hairdressing school. I now have a full cosmetology license. I succeed business I don’t give up.”

Often, disabled students will find a supportive teacher willing to rethink her usual way of doing things. “Working with the handicapped is a challenge in that you need to be prepared,” says Judy Ventura, an instructor at the Dudley Cosmetology University in Kernersville, N.C. Ventura has worked with both deaf students and wheelchair-bound students. “You need to put yourself in the situation beforehand and see whether the tables are at the correct height and whether the door is wheelchair-accessible.

“You need to go over the lesson plan step by step and make sure what you say is not offensive to the student in a wheelchair or misinterpreted by a deaf student,” continues Ventura. “There are several kinds of sign language. If the student uses American Sign Language, she may not know what you’re saying. For example, if you sign ‘Manicure finish you?’ the deaf student will interpret it as ‘Have you had (or done) a manicure?’ But what you mean is ‘Have you finished the manicure?’ You have to prepare a lesson both in English and American Sign Language.”

Millie Moreno, a deaf nail technician who now works at the Nail Detail in Tampa, Fla., says she “survived through school with the help of my hearing sister who interpreted for me, and also my deaf daughter who lip-read for me. I needed an interpreter but my school didn’t provide one. I communicated with my teacher and classmates by writing and lipreading. They were very nice to me and were very to me and were very interested in me because they realized that I worked hard to pass all those tests.”

Elizabeth Anthony, president of Progressive Nail Concepts in Palestine, III., has also adapted her classroom environment to accommodate students with disabilities.

“The classroom was street-level accessible, and there was plenty of room for people in wheelchairs to move around in,” she says, “but we had to adapt in pedicuring. We needed the client in a higher chair so that the client’s foot could be placed in the disabled student’s lap. We used a hospital pillow covered in plastic and towels and it worked just fine.

Disabled Employees

Salon owners who employ handicapped technicians find they need to make few, if any, adjustments. Sharon Parker, owner of The Nail Detail, helps Moreno do her job by making sure someone else is with her to take phone calls. “That’s the only thing I do different for her that I don’t do for the other technicians,” says Parker. “Also, Millie keeps client cards and asks us to call clients if she hasn’t seen them in a while. She communicates with clients in the salon by lipreading and writing notes.”

Moreno adds, “The other nail techs and clients have made my job easier because they are patient with me. We help each other out. Sharon, or any of the other nail technicians, lets me know if one of my clients is coming or not, and they let me know what is going on in the salon. I have a special machine called TDD (Telecommunication Device for the Deaf) at the salon as well as at my home. It’s a machine with a keyboard like a regular typewriter. A hearing or deaf person puts the handset of a regular phone on top of the TDD and by a series of sounds the typing on one end is transferred to writing on the other end.”

Annessa Blair, a nail technician at Atkinson’s in St. Petersburg, Fla., is in a wheelchair due to osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition that makes the bones weak and brittle. Blair says that no modifications had to be made for her disability either in school or at Atkinson’s. She attributes her success to her positive attitude. “I never had any obstacles, but I’m not your average disabled person,” she says. I’ve been raised to believe that the only difference between me and someone else is that to get from point A to point B, I don’t put one foot in front of the other, I push a button. A lot of people forget I have a wheelchair, and I think a lot has to do with your attitude. In this business it’s the outgoing people who shine.”

Parker agrees that a positive attitude is a driving force behind a person’s success – it was the reason she hired Moreno. “Millie came across as if there was nothing she couldn’t do,” says Parker. “I hired her on the spot.”

Adds Bingham, “I hire people for personality, not for technical skills. I can teach technical skill, but not personality.” Bingham will soon be in a position to hire technicians, as she is currently planning to open Christiane Salon Ltd., a salon designed specifically to accommodate the mobility impaired.

Handicapped Clients

Bingham’s advice to nail technicians and cosmetologists who offer services to the handicapped is to use a light touch during hand and foot massages and to slow down. “It’s a dignity issue,” she says. “You need to go slower when working with a handicapped person. It takes so much energy to dress, prepare a meal, get into and out of a car, and to do other activities that it hurts to be treated like an inconvenience.

“Also, it’s the usual practice for a nail technician to check the shape of the nail, palm down and palm up,” continues Bingham, “but when you turn the client’s hand over to check palm up, you need to move the arm from the elbow, not by the hand or wrist. Some disabled people have limited flexibility, so you need to move the entire arm.”

In addition, don’t treat the client as if she doesn’t care about her appearance just because she’s handicapped. “I know how much my manicure means to me,” says Bingham. “I have pretty hands, even though they don’t always work. When I see my hands and they’re beautifully manicured, it affects how I feel about myself emotionally, intellectually, and even sexually.”

Above all, says Bingham, always treat handicapped people as people. “When I’m on my scooter, people talk to my husband instead of to me,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to talk to someone.” When offering assistance to a disabled person, ask how you can be helpful and then wait for instructions. “Sometimes if you help without asking, you can hinder the person,” Bingham says.

Because disabled clients have special needs, Bingham wants Christine Salon to provide a variety of services while maintaining the dignity of the client. “My salon is barrier-free,” says Bingham.

“One of the things that makes a salon barrier-free is automatic doors. Another thing that makes it barrier-free are five-foot turn arounds, which means that no one has to go backwards to get out of a place. Can you imagine what that does to your dignity?” Christiane Salon will also have a TDD system for the hearing impaired, motorized lifts for clients in wheelchairs, accessible sinks, convenient writing surfaces, barrier-free restrooms, and specially designed manicure tables.

Removing Physical Barriers

While not all salons can afford to replace doors, add ramps, or redesign their floor space, there are ways to create greater access for handicapped employees and clients. “The first thing to do to increase accessibility in an existing salon is to try to allow the floor area to open up a bit, says Kevin McDonnell, sales director for Interstate Design Industries in Mt. Laurel, N.J. McDonnell, along with Cheryl DiMaio and Denise L. Lewis, is working with Bingham to design Christiane Salon.

“Accessibility for the handicapped also means there has to be sensitivity to the integrity of the handicapped person,” McDonnell explains. “You need a specific place for a wheelchair to blend into the regular seating arrangement in the waiting area, as well as a place for a wheelchair at a manicure table or hairdresser’s station. A wheelchair can be accommodated by moving furniture or eliminating it.”

The reception desk can also pose a problem for a person in a wheelchair. “The writing surface for someone who’s standing,” says McDonnell. “A desk with wheelchair access will be more like an office desk. Manicure tables, for the most part, will work with a wheelchair. The retail section should also provide access to a person in a wheelchair. That person has as much right to go over and look at something on the shelf as a person standing.”

The best way to see your salon from a handicapped person’s point of view is to experience the handicap yourself. “I spent the day in a wheelchair and it was a holler,” says Ventura. “It was terrible. I couldn’t get into the door to shop, and it limited my shopping. I couldn’t get into a restaurant, and even in my own house I couldn’t turn on the light because I couldn’t reach it. If Salon owners are dedicated to making their salons barrier-free, they need to spend a day in a wheelchair or with a walker.”

Think about other ways your salon can serve the handicapped, says Ventura. “If you have deaf technicians or clients, you’ll need an interpreter and a fire alarm with flashing lights; if there are blind people, there should be facilities for their guide dogs.”

Removing Mental Barriers

To instill empathy for the handicapped, Bingham conducts seminars in which she “disables” participants. “I tie one arm and ask them to copy a sentence from a book on the board,” she says.

“They have to walk back and forth from the book on the desk to the board. Or I’ll give them my scooter and make them go through doors. I’ll put someone else in a wheelchair and make them get water and bring it to the table. A simple glass of water becomes not so simple anymore. Most people’s eyes are opened.”

Perhaps the best thing salon owners can do to open their doors to disabled people is to eliminate any fear or nervousness they may have when faced with a handicapped person. “I have found that when people have a handicap, they’d rather you address it immediately and get on,” says Anthony.

“I can understand why people have to overcome their fear,” says Moreno. “They have probably never socialized or worked with a hearing-impaired person. I can win their trust by showing them my good work and by building a relationship with them by lipreading and writing them my response on paper. People need to be made more aware of the hearing-impaired so we won’t be stereotyped. The only difference is that we cannot hear.”

Bingham adds, “I don’t think anyone would be offended if you said to them, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve never dealt with a blind person before. What can I do to make you more comfortable?’”

Consider handicapped nail technicians when hiring new employees. “Our field is perfect for individuals restricted in mobility,” says Anthony. “The hardest thing is for them to find salons that will work with them. People who have disabilities have a greater desire to work and tend to be reliable and dedicated to their jobs. Often, they’ve had to struggle to get where they are, and a job means a lot to them.”

By freeing any fears or misconceptions about disabled people, you can create a barrier-free atmosphere in your salon. Providing access to the handicapped means you’ll be following the law, but also that you’ll meet some exceptional people.

“Disabled people want to feel like they’re just another tech or customer,” says Anthony. “They have feelings, desires, goals, and skills to share.”

Adds Bingham, “All have had life experience and would love to talk, even if they talk in a way you can’t understand.”

Americans With Disabilities Act Increases Opportunities

 The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disabilities in employment, public services, public accommodation, and communications. Businesses will be required to take all “readily achievable” steps to remove physical barriers and provide service to people with physical and mental disabilities. However, these accommodations may not cause undue financial hardship to the employer or provider.

The deadline for removing barriers is January 26, 1992, for businesses with more than 25 employees; July 26, 1992 for businesses with more than 10 but fewer than 26 employees; and January 26, 1993, for businesses with 10 or fewer employees.

Compliance may mean simply rearranging furniture and lowering writing surfaces and telephones. Or it can mean adding grab bars or ramps over steps. Salons probably won’t be required to add an elevator or do a major redesign of the floor space.

In addition to removing barriers, the ADA prohibits discrimination against the disabled in employment by businesses with 25 or more employees as of July 26, 1992, and for businesses with 15 to 24 employees as of July 26, 1994. Currently, about two-thirds of disabled people are unemployed.

Passage of the ADA means that disabled people will have equal access to work, travel, and public gatherings.

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