Getting a Good Haircut

Customers and stylists speak out on using PCAs at the salon

Dawn Kreutz of Eden Prairie still remembers the bad experience she had several years ago and how it made her feel. “Angry!” she typed on her communicator. She had gone to her regular salon for a trim. A new stylist “grabbed handfuls of hair and just cut.” Kreutz could not stop the stylist. Her mother Marilyn had stepped out for a few minutes and Kreutz hadn’t brought her communicator. When Marilyn returned and saw what was happening, she confronted the stylist, but the damage had been done. Two repair attempts left Kreutz with shorter hair than she wanted and a style that took months to grow out. Learning from the experience, Marilyn and Joanne Musick, Kreutz’s personal care attendant, now monitor salon visits carefully.

This author interviewed hair stylists and their customers with disabilities at salons around the Twin Cities and found that when communication between them breaks down, experiences like Kreutz’s are common. Getting a good haircut can be a challenge for anyone, but for customers with disabilities, it can be a traumatic experience.

A traumatic experience for everyone. Laura Quist-Knox of Newport and stylist Jesse Campbell of West Saint Paul had an unhappy encounter last month. Quist-Knox, who uses a DynaVox communicator but does not take it to salons, was accidentally taken to the wrong salon on Robert Street in West Saint Paul. Her group home staff dropped her at Campbell’s salon, Cost Cutters, instead of Great Clips, where she is a regular customer. The staff member told Campbell to cut Quist-Knox’s hair “short, but not like a boy’s” and then left to get dinner. Quist-Knox expressed her agitation but could not make Campbell understand her. Campbell saw Quist-Knox getting upset and feared hurting her. When the staff members returned to the salon, Quist-Knox asked them to help him, but they declined. An argument ensued. Quist-Knox ended up with a haircut she didn’t like and a bad memory. “It was scary,” she later told her father Larry Quist.

The experience was traumatic for Campbell too. He called the group home several times to complain to the manager but felt that he wasn’t being taken seriously. The staff who answered his first calls refused to give him the manager’s number. His colleague Brenda Devereaux said Campbell’s experience was common at their salon. “Group homes often bring people here and dump them. The PCAs go out shopping or run personal errands. I had one client in who could walk but she couldn’t tell me how to cut her hair. The man who brought her left for an hour. I was very angry. He was the supervisor of her group home so I never did anything about it. What’s the point [of complaining] if the supervisor does it?”

How can customers and stylists communicate better with one another? Several stylists agreed that a good haircut requires effective communication. Stylist Dawn Wade at River Front Hair Cutters in Oak Park Heights told of one customer who has trouble sitting for a long time and cannot easily communicate. In order to ease his anxiety and give him a good cut, she says “I cut as quickly as I can. I make sure he is comfortable and I tell him what I’m doing. It helps that his mother is there holding him.”

Heidi Braylock, a stylist at Fantastic Sams in Roseville, said that having a care attendant or family member stay and assist the stylist is important. “Most group home attendants let us know what to do and help us, but often family members simply drop off a person and leave them with us. Sometimes we don’t know what to do and we try to stop the family member if they are going to leave.”

Sean Cooley at Great Clips in Saint Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood said stylists keep detailed notes on customers’ preferred haircuts in their computer profiles, a practice that is helpful for those who cannot easily communicate. But the system is not foolproof. Cooley remembered once when a regular customer was brought in by a new aide. The aide told her to “cut all his hair off.” Cooley knew this was not the man’s regular cut. She asked the customer but was unable to understand his response. Then she showed the aide her notes indicating that this was not the man’s regular cut. The aide insisted and she complied, but she worried that her customer would not be happy with the result.

Braylock has one regular she worries about. “His mom talks for him, but we can tell from his face he doesn’t want the haircut mom wants.”

Do stylists discriminate against customers with disabilities? Cathy Patnode of New Hope thinks so. “Some places give you a crummy cut because you are handicapped. They don’t care what you look like.”

Colleen Kirby, cosmetology instructor at Saint Paul College, disagrees. She said that although there is “no specialized training” in styling hair for persons with disabilities, “we have a lot of persons with disabilities who come for free haircuts. Students learn to take more time with them. Students like doing things to help everyone look good.”

Braylock also disagrees that stylists discriminate. “I want customers with a disability to get what everyone gets, a good cut.”

Jill Hocking, Campus Director of the Minnesota School of Cosmetology in Oakdale, says her school does not give students any “extra training,” as people with disabilities are “treated like any client.” Still she emphasizes to her students that they should see themselves as care-givers to all their clients. “They are in a field that is a ‘helping-people profession’ and that makes them caregivers.”

How to get a better haircut? Develop a relationship with a favorite hair cutter. Being a regular at a salon helps, say many stylists and customers. Brenda Devereaux says, “We have regulars we know well. We know what kind of cuts to do for them.”

John Schatzlein has been going to the same salon in Savage for more than twenty years. “They always pull a chair for me [to make space for his wheelchair]. No problems all these years. They know me and everything works fine.” Michele Nickerson, Information and Referral Coordinator at UCP of Minnesota, agrees: “My hair stylist has known me for more than ten years. Even after moving from Roseville to Golden Valley, I still go to my salon in Shoreview because they give all their clients the respect and assistance they might need.”

Becky Mansaurakos has been cutting hair at Cost Cutters, 26th and Lake in Minneapolis, for seventeen years and says there are rarely complaints. She says that they have “quite a few” customers with disabilities. “I know most people who come here by name. I have one regular customer who uses a wheelchair and communicates with a machine. No problems.”

Are salons adapted to the needs of customers with disabilities? Stylists and customers both agree that salons are not ideally equipped to handle customers in wheelchairs. Braylock summed up the problem for many stylists. “It would be great if salons were better equipped. We need sinks that raise up or down. And its hard to cut hair for people in wheelchairs because they are so low. Kills your back. Would be great to have lifts for wheelchairs.”

Amy Sharp, a volunteer at Courage Center in Golden Valley summed it up for many customers. “I’m OK with getting my hair cut in my chair, but the person who does it usually asks if it is OK for me to transfer. I like to get my hair cut in their chairs because its hard to get the hair off my chair later. They use the blow dryer to get hair off my chair, but they can’t get it all. The main issue for me is that shampoo basins are hard to get up to. I barely get up there, having to stretch. My chair tilts and that helps; otherwise it would be very difficult for me.”

Cooley adds that customers who use wheelchairs might want to compare facilities at salons. “Newer Great Clips salons have shampoo bowls that move, so it’s easier to shampoo people in wheelchairs. Older salons don’t have those, and it can be difficult.”

Is a good haircut important? Consuella Mackey thinks so. “Looking good helps one be successful in the business world.” A hair stylist and fashion designer based in Los Angeles, Mackey founded Operation Confidence, a beauty industry organization, “to bring awareness and include people with disabilities into the beauty and fashion industry” www.operationconfidence.org

Have a customer complaint? First try the salon manager. Marilyn Kreutz did this for her daughter Dawn and the staff apologized and offered a “repair free of charge.” You can also contact the Minnesota Board of Barber and Cosmetologist Examiners for statutes and rules violations. Information on statutes and rules and how to make a complaint can be found at: www.bceboard.state.mn.us/