On a typical day, Corissa Barro has research to do before she leaves the house for a routine errand. The 37-year-old with close-cropped hair and a punk-rock sensibility uses a wheelchair for mobility, so she checks ahead of time to see if her destination is accessible.
But on a recent trip to Black Sheep Salon in Long Beach, the expectations were reversed. Instead of having to navigate an environment built for people who experience the world differently than she does, Barro was welcomed by a wide door frame that easily accommodated her wheelchair. A sign in the window read, “Fight for disability justice.”
Inside—surrounded by walls painted with vibrant hues of teal, orange, leopard print and polka dot—styling chairs are moveable and adjustable, and a portable shampoo sink can be placed behind Barro’s chair to ensure her salon experience is safe and dignified.
“It’s such a great feeling knowing that disabled people are prioritized here,” said Barro.
Barro used to do her hair at home. Her short buzz cut is easy to maintain, picks up bleach and any vibrant color with ease, and it was always cheaper than going to a salon where the experience was often as unpleasant as the price itself.
Today, however, being in a space where she felt physically comfortable made it easy for Barro to trust her stylist, so, she asked to be surprised, only requesting something that would match her brash, outgoing sense of style.
“I guess I tend to dress more colorful and go more out there so my disability isn’t the focus,” she said. “It gives me a sense of individualism.”
As its name suggests, Black Sheep Salon was designed to serve those like Barro who have been “often treated as afterthoughts in the beauty industry,” according to its website. Since opening its doors in November 2021, owner Marie Rolla’s approach has been to create a space that services everyone no matter their size, gender, sexuality or disability.
On July 26, customers like Barro eagerly filed into Black Sheep Salon for a free haircut, many for the very first time. The salon hosted an event to commemorate the 32nd birthday of the Americans with Disabilities Act and to celebrate Disability Pride Month, offering anyone with a physical or neurological disability a free haircut to take advantage of the many accommodations available to them.
The ADA, which was signed into law in 1990, was a turning point for the disabled community and represented a decades-long campaign of protest and activism to ensure that disabled people had equal access to public spaces and services but it certainly did not solve the problem entirely. The beauty industry especially has lagged far behind, said Rolla.
Rolla, 32, never wanted to own a business. Having been a hairstylist for over 13 years, she knew the stress that came with being an owner but also began to notice a lack of access in traditional salon settings for people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and disabled people. When she came to terms with her own autism diagnosis a year and a half ago, it became the catalyst to creating a space that she felt comfortable being in and working in.
Asking for too much is never a problem here, said Rolla. “These are people that deserve the same access to places that you and I get.” Though it’s been an ambitious undertaking to offer accommodations for every disability, the least she can do is try.
Tunowa Silva cuts hair at Black Sheep Salon in Long Beach Tuesday, July 26, 2022. The salon hosted a free hair-cutting event for people who have a disability to honor the 32nd birthday of the ADA. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.
A sign posted on a mirror lists all the accommodations available. Clients with sensory sensitivities can ask for earplugs, fragrance-free products or to use the salon’s quiet room to get away from the chaos of whirling blow dryers and the constant buzz of hair clippers. Additionally, stylists are trained to work with all hair textures and anyone who may be uncomfortable during their appointment is encouraged to speak up and voice their concerns.
Rolla wants her example to someday become the standard instead of the exception.
“I hope it’s a funny joke I can tell later,” said Rolla, laughing. “Remember when we had a disability salon because nobody serviced disabled people?”
In one corner of the salon, stylist Andy Sedillos wore a clear face mask to communicate with their client, Rachel Mix. Mix, who is deaf, has frequently found it difficult to express her wants at a salon, but thanks to the transparent mask, she was able to easily read Sedillos’ lips when they inquired about the style she was going for—long layers with face-framing and volume.
“A lot of times, you go to salons and they are very tight and rigid. You can’t be who you are, and you’re worried about being judged,” said Mix. When she learned about the event at Black Sheep Salon through social media, she was shocked that a place like this even existed.
In 2018, there were 46,000 disabled working-age people living in Long Beach. Since then, the city has taken strides toward ensuring that the disabled community is acknowledged such as the recently installing ADA accessible beach mats along the city’s coast. However, there is far more to be done to ensure equal access for all, said Mix.
She currently works as a recreational therapist and as a job coach for the Adult Transition Program at the Anaheim Union School District, helping neurodivergent young adults develop job skills and social skills to allow them to self-advocate for their disabilities. She hopes to soon transition into being an ADA coordinator to ensure that there is equal access everywhere.
“Listen to disabled people,” said Mix. “They’re the ones that know more about what needs to be done.”
Soon after Barro arrived at the salon, she and her stylist decided on what her new hair color would be, a bright pink base with intricately painted black cockroaches scattered throughout. An ode to John Waters and Divine, the design was inspired by the cockroach dress worn in “Hairspray” and represented their shared love and appreciation for drag culture. “It’s pretty punk rock if you ask me,” said stylist Leah Davidson.
After five arduous hours of waiting for her color to fully develop, Barro’s masterpiece was complete. “I can already think of all the outfits I’m going to wear with it,” she said. “It makes me really happy.”
With only one customer remaining in the salon that Tuesday, Rolla let out a sigh of relief as if to say, “we did it.”
“This is what normal looks like,” she said, looking around at the safe space she’s created.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the occupation of Rachel Mix and to clarify that she is deaf, not deaf and hard of hearing.