IN 1990, on Chris Bingham’s first day in a beauty culture course at the Ocean County Vocational-Technical School, her teacher asked the students why they wanted to be hairdressers. When Ms. Bingham’s turn came, she answered without hesitation. “I said, ‘I’m going to open the first salon in the nation equipped for people with disabilities,’ ” she recalled.
The odds against achieving her goal were formidable. She was waging a draining battle of her own against multiple sclerosis and had no money. But Ms. Bingham, a 39-year-old Red Bank resident, is a woman of her word: this year, the Christiane Salon opened its doors here.
Mary Atherton, editor in chief of Modern Salon, a national trade magazine based in Lincolnshire, Ill., said she believed that Ms. Bingham’s salon was the first in the country to cater specifically to the disabled. “The people in the industry are watching her very closely, because what she’s doing is so unique,” Ms. Atherton said.
On a recent morning, the salon hummed with activity, and Ms. Bingham, dressed in a raspberry suit and black oxfords, often stopped to chat with customers as she showed a visitor around.
Flowers figure prominently in the inviting decor: the pale pink walls are edged with wallpaper in a floral motif, and bouquets and a wreath brighten several corners. Fancifully made-up, bewigged mannequins with colorful scarfs tied around their necks are everywhere. Ample Space for Wheelchairs
The salon is spacious and uncluttered, not merely to please the eye, but to enable customers in wheelchairs or motorized scooters to move about easily. And Ms. Bingham pointed out that there is enough space for a customer in a wheelchair to turn around in every area of the salon, including the bathroom.
The salon’s electric-eye door opens automatically, and the telephone is equipped with a device for the deaf so that they can make appointments without the help of a third party. A portable sink on a telescoping pole and a dryer that descends from a wall mount enable customers to have their hair washed and dried in their wheelchairs.
The sink is also a boon, Ms. Bingham said, to those with arthritis and other problems who find it painful to bend their heads backward into a standard sink.
Shelves are 48 inches from the floor for easy browsing from a wheelchair, and there is enhanced ventilation that filters out the strong odors of chemicals used for permanent waves and hair coloring, which can cause people undergoing chemotherapy to become nauseated, Ms. Bingham said.
Although none of the equipment is custom made for the disabled, some was expensive. For example, the automatic door cost $2,000 and the wall-mounted dryer cost $900, compared with $200 for the standard salon dryer, Ms. Bingham said. A Change of Career
Ms. Bingham’s multiple sclerosis was diagnosed in 1986, and three years later, when her condition worsened, she decided to abandon her career of almost 20 years as a medical office manager to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a hairdresser. “If M.S. took my body away,” she said, “I didn’t want to have to say I hadn’t done something I always wanted to do.”
By then, because of weakness in her legs, she was driving a car equipped with hand controls and using a motorized scooter to conserve her strength when a significant amount of walking was required.
During a particularly bad period, she had to use a wheelchair, and it was then that the idea of opening a salon for the disabled was born.
“When I was in a wheelchair, I tried to go in and get a haircut and a permanent because I still cared about how I looked,” Ms. Bingham said. “I felt like an inconvenience; I felt hurried in and out of the salon because people were dealing with their own discomfort instead of dealing with me as a person.” ‘No Savings, Just a Dream’
She soon came face to face with the hard realities of starting a business. She spent a frustrating two years knocking on doors, armed only with her own determination and a business plan. “I had no savings, no equity in my home, just a dream,” Ms. Bingham said. Then the Ocean National Bank lent her $150,000; she also received $5,000 from Clairol.
She named the salon for her daughter, Christiane, 21. Ms. Bingham also has a son, John, 19.
The salon has a mix of disabled and non-disabled customers, and that is especially important to Ms. Bingham. “I want able-bodied and disabled people to intermix and be comfortable,” she said. “The biggest thing is that people are afraid of handicapped people.”
But most of the able-bodied customers think the concept is “wonderful,” she said. “If they don’t, I don’t want them here.” Able-bodied people have choices, she said, “and my clients don’t.”
She handles the limitations imposed by her own disability smoothly. “I always tell my new clients that I have multiple sclerosis because when I’m doing hair, I’m awkward, I’m slow,” she said. “I had a client come in for a shampoo and set, and I said, ‘It’s going to take me a long time; would you prefer that I have somebody else do it?’ She said, ‘Honey, if you have enough courage to stand here and do it, I have enough time to wait.’ And that’s been the general reaction.”
Customers at the salon have a range of physical disabilities caused by conditions that include strokes, multiple sclerosis, polio and osteoporosis; one woman has Alzheimer’s disease. The mentally retarded are welcome, Ms. Bingham said, although none have come in so far. She employs two hairdressers, a nail technician and a salon coordinator.
Ms. Bingham said she looked for employees who had special sensitivity and compassion. Lauren Hancock of Point Pleasant said she found her job as the salon coordinator much more fulfilling than her previous work as an administrative assistant. ‘You’re Helping People’
“I grew up in the 60’s and the 70’s,” Ms. Hancock said. “You always wanted to help mankind. This, we’re doing. You’re helping people; you’re making them feel good about themselves.”
One customer, Susan M. Schwartz, found her options increasingly limited since after she learned she had multiple sclerosis in 1989. For a while, she was able to walk with a cane but “couldn’t maneuver well,” she said.
About the salon that she used to go to, Ms. Schwartz, a resident of Middletown Township, said: “I felt very self-conscious. People were staring.”
Now she uses a motorized scooter to get around, further narrowing her choices. Salon appointments are particularly important because she can no longer blow-dry her own hair or even file a chipped nail.
“Before this, I didn’t care how it looked just as long as I could get it cut once in a while, because I felt I couldn’t be picky,” she said. “But now I can get something nice, and I can get around here.”
Lois Moncher, who also has multiple sclerosis, travels 26 miles from Manalapan Township each week to have her hair done. “It’s not rushed, and the ambience is very comfortable,” said Ms. Moncher, who walks with crutches. “I like the human touch.” Efforts Beyond the Salon
Ms. Bingham’s advocacy for the disabled extends beyond the doors of her salon. For a year and a half she contacted companies in the beauty industry, asking them to feature a disabled person in a printed advertising spread. Image Laboratories, a California-based manufacturer of hair products, did so.
In recognition of her efforts on behalf of the disabled, Ms. Bingham was presented with the first Golden Heart Award, sponsored by Image Laboratories, during the Art and Fashion Group’s World Masters ceremony in San Diego last June. She has also received calls from salon owners throughout the country and in Canada asking what they can do to accommodate the disabled, she said.
Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go, she said. “I feel that it is automatically assumed that it’s not important to us to look fashionable, when in reality it’s as important to me as it is to you,” Ms. Bingham said. “People just automatically assume that because a person is lesser in body or lesser in mind capability that they don’t have dreams and desires, and that’s wrong; that’s real wrong.”
Photos: Chris Bingham, owner of Christiane Salon, with customer. Lori Graziano, an employee at the Christiane Salon in Red Bank, doing Susan M. Schwartz’s nails. (Photographs by Frank Dougherty for The New York Times)