Viral haircut sparks conversation about disabilities in the media

Oct 4, 2018

You may have seen pictures of two local men go viral: a barber giving a man a haircut on the sidewalk because the shop wasn’t accessible by wheelchair.

But since the story went national, it’s raised questions about how people with disabilities are covered in the media.

Devin Hamilton is an engineer and president of RapAdapt in Webster.
Credit Veronica Volk / WXXI News

Devin Hamilton is 30 years old. He's an engineer working in Webster, and he has cerebral palsy. He says one day, he decided to get a haircut at Joe's Upscale Barbershop, a few blocks from where he works. But when he rode his wheelchair over there, he didn't see a ramp.

"So I called and I said, 'Do you take walk-ins?' "

The shop does take walk-ins, but only if you can make it up the four steps from the sidewalk.

"So I asked if he could give me a haircut outside," he says. "That's how it happened."

One thing to know about Devin: This is not his first outdoor haircut. Devin grew up on a farm, getting his hair cut outside because it was easier to clean up afterward.

Victor Burgos is a barber at Joe's Upscale Barbershop.
Credit Veronica Volk / WXXI News

When he got to the shop that day, Devin happened to meet Victor Burgos, a barber. This wasn't his first outdoor haircut, either. When he was 17 years old, he says he’d give his family haircuts at barbecues. He does them in basements, garages and back porches.

"Right away I was just like, 'Well, thank God my cordless clippers and stuff stay charged,' " he says. "I keep everything nice and ready to go. I even have a barber chair in the back of my car in case we have to do it right in the parking lot."

So the guy who grew up getting his hair cut outside on the farm meets the barber with portable clippers and a chair in his car.

Victor says he gave Devin the full experience right there on the sidewalk with a cut and straight razor shave. Devin says he was happy with it, and the two agreed to try to work out a deal where Devin could get his cut from Victor again even if he couldn’t get into the shop. And that might have been the end of it.

But it was not.

These photos of Victor Burgos giving Devin Hamilton a haircut outside a Webster barbershop went viral after being posted on the shop owner's Facebook page.
Credit Joe Cocozza

"I knew someone was going to take a picture," Victor says. "I just, didn't know it would turn into all this."

The owner of the store, Joe Cocozza, posted a few pictures of the haircut on his personal Facebook account.

"Honestly," he says, "I just wanted to give a good shoutout to Victor and, you know, show people that we care."

Joe’s post read, in part: “I couldn’t be happier when I was told this story.”

And neither, it seems, could the internet. The post got a couple likes, then a couple hundred, then a couple thousand. That’s when the craziness really started. The pictures and story were picked up by local news affiliates, and national outlets like Inside Edition, Fox and Yahoo.

But the framing of the story bothered some in the disability rights community.

Ericka Jones is an advocate for the Center for Disability Rights. She first came across the story on a local news station's Facebook page, when she noticed the caption: "A customer with special needs showed up looking to get a haircut but he had no way of getting inside. Instead of turning the customer away the barber shop came to him."

Ericka Jones is an advocate with the Center for Disability Rights.
Credit Veronica Volk / WXXI News

"There’s two problems with that," she says. "A: he shouldn’t have been forced to do that. And B: the term special needs is incredibly offensive to our community."

Ericka responded to the story in a post that read, in part, "This isn't a feel good story. His place isn't accessible to disabled people so now if we want to get a cut we have to sit in the sidewalk and get gawked at? Would you want to sit on the stoop and get your hair done?"

It got some negative responses, including people telling her to "shut up" or calling her a jerk.

"At that point I feel like they didn’t realize that I was a person with a disability commenting on this story and that this is a personal thing for me as well," she says.

Ericka doesn’t just advocate for accessibility for a living, it's part of her daily life. The story seemed to glorify a business that, in her opinion, wasn’t doing enough to accommodate people in wheelchairs. Joe says it’s his landlord’s responsibility to make the building accessible.

"Obviously I would want handicap accessibility," he says. "It doesn’t make sense for me not to want it.”

We were unable to reach the building owner for this story.

But there’s another reason why the narrative bothered Ericka.

"This was not just a typical story," she says. "This is what we call 'inspiration porn,' which is any story that is showing something that is not particularly that special about how an able-bodied person is helping or assisting in some way a disabled person."

Not only does this narrative distract from the lack of accessibility in the community, Erika says, it perpetuates harmful stereotypes about people with disabilities by saying, look how brave this person is for living their life, despite their disability.

Joe says that was not his intention when he posted the pictures. And Devin says he wasn’t uncomfortable being a spectacle. He says being on a farm taught him he’d always have to find workarounds for lack of access, and he’s happy to teach people about cerebral palsy.

When asked if he ever got tired of being a spokesperson for CP, he replied, "Not really. It's just my personality."

It’s also his business. Devin is the president of a company called RapAdapt. He designs adaptive technology, like custom ramps. He works with individuals, and businesses, to make all kinds of spaces more accessible.

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk