South Knoxville Stylist Caters To Deaf Clientele

Aug 2, 2013

Christy Frazier-Paine, right, styles Loretta Ayer's hair. Frazier-Paine owns Salon Christy, a salon that caters especially to hearing-impaired clients.
Credit Celeste Delarosa

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Christy Frazier-Paine does not wear hearing aids

Jobless rates have been falling - but a sudden spike in unemployment this summer is a reminder that the U-S still hasn’t recovered from the recession. Experts say the last four years have been especially hard on small business owners. And one local entrepreneur is working to open a salon that caters to very specific clients.

Opening a salon takes a lot of work. There’s the challenge to find financing - a risk even in a strong economy - plus the design elements, specialty equipment, paperwork and product orders. There are the marketing and accounting projects, and, once it’s open, customer appointments to schedule. Imagine juggling all those daily social interactions … and being deaf.

Christy Frazier-Paine is a stylist, and she’s been deaf most of her life.

“I just sign to her and then she voices back to me,” says client and friend Loretta Ayers.

Frazier-Paine usually works with clients by herself. But for this interview, she asked two long-time friends to help translate. Judi Brookshire and Loretta Ayers are from the Tennessee School for the Deaf, just down the road from the salon.

“It’s more like a family business; it’s more like welcoming family here,” Christy says, as Judi translates. Loretta is waiting for a haircut.

“We talk all the time when she cuts my hair; it usually takes longer,” says Loretta, as Judi laughs, saying, “You have to stop and sign!”

“Cause we’re always catchin’ up on gossip,” adds Loretta, signing the words to Christy as she speaks them.

After Christy earned her cosmetology degree, she started out as a stylist in a franchised salon. But she says potential customers didn’t trust her.

“Some people would be very rude. They would say, how can you cut hair if you’re deaf?” she says.

She quit that first job, thinking clients might be more understanding elsewhere. But at the next salon, coworkers complained that writing back-and-forth with customers slowed Christy down, putting heavier workloads on their stations.

“My language is limited,” Christy says, “I can’t help it.”

Christy quit again. But she found the same problems at the next salon, and the one after that. At one salon, Christy says the management’s discrimination was so bad that she filed a lawsuit. That lawsuit’s still in court. By then, she says she was done working for other people.

“I’d been doing hair for 13 years and had to work on the weekends and late at night; I decided I’d do better on my own so I’d have time with my family,” she says.

Now Christy takes online bookings in her own salon. It’s been challenging: She says it took a long time to find a place that would rent to a deaf person, and she lost some of her clients in the move.

“I really don’t have a strong base client right now - some people I’m too far from or the schedule doesn’t work, so right now I’m trying to build a client base,” she says.

But Christy’s optimistic. She says she thinks there’s a gap in the market for salons like hers that cater especially to deaf and deaf-and-blind clients. Christy says overcoming language barriers makes the difference between a client being okay with a haircut and loving the haircut.

“They can tell me what they want; I understand them,” she says.

And even though she’s starting small, in a tiny office suite hidden from the main road, she’s ready for the next chapter in her life.

“I decided to step into a big dream and make it happen,” she says.

While experts say this isn’t the best time to try a new business, Christy says she’s tired of hearing what she “can’t” do. She says she’s a deaf entrepreneur, and while one word may inform the other, they’re never mutually exclusive.