Disability History Month: Meet Hairdresser Mitch Chalmers
This Disability History Month we interview Mitch Chalmers who was paralysed after a spinal cord injury in 2014 and works full time as a professional hairdresser. Here’s his story, plus he shares how salons can include and attract disabled clients and employees.
What was your journey to becoming a hairdresser? Is it a career path you’ve always fancied?
I wanted to be a hairdresser back in school but it had quite a stigma so I actually trained as a plasterer. My passion however was motocross racing, but in 2014 I had a life-changing accident when I came off my bike and I had to rethink my career.
I went to college in Bath and I went on various hairdressing courses in London and Lincoln. I got my CV ready and handed it out to various salons in my local area of Bristol and Bath.
The area I live in is quite old school and salons tend to be in old buildings so I thought access might be an issue. But one of the first places I handed in my CV was to James Christopher Hairdressing in Midsomer Norton. I went to see the owner face to face and there was only one small step up to the salon, which was fine for me to get up with my wheelchair.
I’ve been there two years now and I’ve got a full column. I love hairdressing – it keeps me active, I’m just not one of those people that can sit behind a desk all day.
What was the biggest challenge you faced going into hairdressing?
One of the biggest challenges for me was my confidence, particularly after my accident. There were only some minor adjustments that had to be made to the salon to allow me to work there. The basin had to be changed so I could get behind it being one of the main adjustments.
What kind of things should salons be doing to ensure their welcoming people of all abilities and disabilities? Both in terms of employing people and also clients.
Spreading the word on social media to highlight your salon has access is really key and a lot of salons don’t realise how easy it is to be accessible. My boss was really good with that. Even before I joined the team he had a ramp. Since I’ve been there there’s been a lot more people with wheelchairs and injuries coming to the salon.
When I was looking for work, I only had one salon who said that I couldn’t work there due to access. But I think a lot of people don’t know that if you employ someone with a disability there’s an access to work scheme. In my area, the council came in and installed a ramp in and the business got funding for that adjustment. I truly believe that making your salon more accessible is only going to make your business more profitable. More people can come to your salon than before and you open yourself up to more hairdressers that can work for you.
How do you feel about the word disabled – do you have a complex relationship with it? Is there a word that you use instead?
I don’t overthink it to be honest. Sometimes that word is a generalised massively … my disability isn’t something I was born with so I tend to say I’m injured or I’ve got an injury. But honestly I’ve probably done more with my injury now than I had before it happened. I constantly surprise myself with what I can do – particularly in terms of my confidence. I can chat to anyone now, before I used to be quite shy around women and I didn’t want to be around other people in my wheelchair.
But now when people come into the salon they already know about me. They know I’m in a wheelchair and they think it’s pretty cool. I’d rather people ask me how I had my injury than ignore it. Sometimes people are surprised when I stand up though (Mitch has a stand-up wheelchair). I’ll do the consultation and I’ll move with them to the shampoo basin and then I stand up. They think it’s amazing!
Do you have a message to send to hairdressers with injuries or disability?
You’ve not really got another option, so just go for it! Don’t overthink it, you just need to make the most of your situation. With any luck you’ve got about 80 years of your life on this planet so do something you love.