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The Hairdresser

Image described in caption.
A graphic with pale pink background with scissors scattered about. In the top right is Equal Lives' logo, and in the centre is a grey square, which is overlaid with bold, black text that reads 'The Hairdresser'. Underneath that is the Barbie-pink silhouette of two women; a hairdresser blow-drying the hair of their seated client.

Do you remember when we were in lock-down, and we couldn’t access the hairdressers or barbers? How about all of those Teams meetings with your colleagues and their disastrous COVID haircuts? Roots coming through; fades overgrowing; buzz cuts appearing due to impatience.

Fortunately, shoddy lock-down hairstyles weren’t much of a problem for our household; I’d trained as a hairdresser when I left school, so I was able to cut our hair throughout lock-down with ease. I enjoyed witnessing those who grew out our natural hair during that time and decided to keep it, embracing their glorious greys, or trying out the curly-girl method. Even the mullet made a comeback! I cheer for its return.

I’ve always enjoyed hair-styling, and all the looks we can achieve with (or without!) the hair on our heads. However, going to the hairdressers or barbers as disabled person can be an ordeal, to say the least.

Disability was the reason I became unable to continue with hairdressing after school, although I didn’t know it then. I started struggling with the long hours, with going up and down their stairs of our salon so many times a day, and eventually with losing the dexterity in my hands. Hairdressers and barbers are on their feet most of the day, leaning over basins and countertops and doing everything with their hands; I wasn’t able to keep up with these tasks anymore.

After recognising my disabilities, I continued to do my own hair for a while, but over time this became impossible. I knew I needed to find a hairdresser. With so many salons still thriving on our high-streets, I thought this would be easy. I was wrong.

When I tell hairdressers that I’m disabled, I’m often met with blank stares and absolutely no follow-up questions. Asking for adjustments has -- in my experience -- been agreed with words but no actions. As it turns out, the salon environment hasn’t changed much over the last few decades despite the innovation and new technologies that the hair and beauty industry has seen.

It’s exciting and fantastic that new products (such as bond builders, new colours, product formulas, and hair tools) are a lot less likely to be divided between genders and are also better suited for people of various ethnicities. What disappoints me is that disabled people are still being left out.

Hair salons can be a really difficult environment for disabled people. Here are just a few accessibility issues that I’ve come across while looking for the right stylist:

  • Salons might have no website or a website that is difficult to us.

  • Salons might not have a system in place for customers to book online.

  • Salons might not ask about a customers’ medications or lifestyle, to help inform the upkeep of hair colouring.

  • Salons often have no wheelchair access, not just into the building but also into its toilets and basins.

  • Salons can have so many different pricing structures.

  • Salons can have high noise levels.

  • Salons can have bright lights.

  • Mobile hairdressers are often only contactable via social media.

  • Some hairdressers perform their services whilst sick, whether this be due to pressure from their employers, or because they don’t understand the impact that illness might have on those with compromised immune systems, or those who already live with illness that can be exacerbated by bugs others would consider minor.

I could go on, but honestly, for me, the worst thing about trying to get a haircut as a disabled person is the lack of awareness surrounding how difficult and frightening it can be. I’ve never been to a salon or talked to a hairdresser where the response to my disabilities has allowed me to feel safe enough to request adjustments. There seems to be very little knowledge about how to cater to disability and work with disabled people among hairstylists and other professionals who work in the industry.

One of my friends is a wheelchair user who lives in central London. When she was entirely housebound a few years ago, she was unable to find a mobile hairdresser. As her mobility improved, she searched for accessible hair-dressers locally and the best she could find was a very expensive salon (part of a well known chain), who had a wheelchair accessible entrance, but no accessible basins to rinse her hair. She wasn't able to park her chair close to the basins either, due to narrow walkways. Luckily, my friend can walk short distances with a stick. She was able to manage that distance, even though it exacerbated her chronic pain for several days afterwards, impacting her ability to do day-to-day tasks. But not everyone has enough mobility for that, and why should exacerbation of pain be an unavoidable part of the experience?

Something went very wrong in the colouring of her hair, and she received chemical burns on her scalp, as well as a chemical haircut she did not want. It left her in agony for over a week, and with a mullet where the hair frazzled off more on her crown (she doesn't share my love of mullets, unfortunately!). The salon were very apologetic, and offered her free weekly bond-repair treatments at the salon. My friend explained that due to chronic fatigue, she isn't able to get out of her home every week. It was challenging enough getting to the salon for that one appointment. The salon made up a care package of the treatments they would have used in-salon, which was a good example of how Reasonable Adjustments can be enacted.

Image described in caption.
A graphic with pale pink background with scissors scattered about. In the top right is Equal Lives' logo, and in the centre is a grey square, overlaid with the image of a person's head rocking a classic mullet, reminiscent of Kevin Keegan circa '78.

I don’t expect any stylist to be able to grant all my wishes for the perfect hairdressing experience and the perfect haircut but going to the salon is expensive; considering how much I pay for the service; I’d like to be able to go and enjoy the experience instead of being filled with dread. I know this will not reflect every disabled person’s experience of going to the hairdressers or barbers, so I’d love to hear positive stories of those in the disabled community getting their hair done. If you do have a nice story to share, please do!

In the meantime, hairdressers, barbers and those working in the wider beauty industry -- if you’re reading this -- please consider some Disability Equality Training for your salon. It widens your customer base and encourages us to keep coming back when we know your salon is a safe space for us to get our hair cut.

- Written by an Equal Lives staff member

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