Eam Vibol uses a tiny clip as he tries to attach an artificial eyelash to his client’s eyelid, who is sitting calmly under a spotlight shining on her face. It’s a recognisable scene from any number of beauty salons around the globe.
But unlike your average salon, in which the air is filled with idle chit-chat between patron and beautician, this salon sits in complete, undisturbed silence as Vibol focuses hard on the job in hand, occasionally exchanging smiles and soft glances.
After he finishes the eyelash extensions, his client bursts into a broad smile, pleased with the final look.
This is the reality of daily business at Phnom Penh’s Bi Salon, a beauty parlour that hires deaf people and those with disabilities.
Born both deaf and unable to speak, Vibol is one of seven staff members with a disability employed by the salon. The 20-year-old – wearing a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt featuring the Bi Salon logo, along with his stylishly coiffed dyed brown hair and earring – has worked at the salon for several months now.
Speaking in sign language, interpreted through sign language translator Srey Mom, Vibol tells The Post: “I was a sign language student from an organisation working with disabled people. The organisation asked me what skills I would choose for my career. It can be tailoring, laundry or salon work. I chose the latter because I always wanted to work in beauty industry from the bottom of my heart.”
Giving people with disabilities an opportunity to work in the beauty industry is the mission of Bi Salon’s owner Kem Khemara, a Cambodian former IT graduate who also studied Japanese in Japan – also working in a beauty salon while there.
Sitting on a sofa against the bright orange wall of her salon in the capital’s Boeng Keng Kang I commune, the 31-year-old salon owner told The Post: “I was initially trying to recruit staff who are victims of domestic violence, family breakdowns, and sexual abuse. I have been working with a few non-governmental organisations like Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), but at first I didn’t think it was possible to hire disabled people to work at my salon.
“But over these past few years, when the organisations raised the idea of recruiting deaf people to work in the beauty industry, I considered it a good initiative.”
Khemara’s partner NGOs are Nippon Japan Support for Persons with Disabilities, Deaf Development Programme (DDP) and PSE. The organisations also promised to provide her sign language translators which made Khemara even more confident in her decision to hire deaf people.
“After hearing that I would be assisted by their translators, I was excited to welcome people with disabilities to train and work at Bi Salon right away,” she says.
“They are quick learners and honest people. I’d say people with disabilities are more honest than other staff I have ever worked with. It’s not difficult to train and work with deaf people. From my experience, they are generally hard-working. During training, they follow each step correctly. While working, they take instructions carefully.”
With very limited opportunities for people with disabilities to find a job in the beauty industry, Khemara said that she notices her deaf staff are appreciative of the opportunity and pay close attention to their tasks.
“I can see that they try very hard to minimise their mistakes. Perhaps they regard the opportunity to be trained and work as a precious one for them. When it comes down to work, they are serious and avoid faults that might result in losing their careers,” she says.
Khemara’s clients, including famous actress Duch Lida and TV host Jimmy Meng, also support her decision and have shown huge positivity towards the initiative. And while her salon has non-deaf staff members that are able to offer services, she says that 90 per cent opt to receive services from her deaf employees.
“Most of my clients prefer disabled staff – and not because of a sense of sympathy. The clients love how they pay great attention and carry out the service professionally,” she says.
Bi Salon has a wide range of beauty services, from haircuts and colouring to nail design, face massages and eyelash extensions. Khemara occasionally invites beauty experts from Japan to train her staff too.
Vibol and his 25-year-old deaf female colleague Chhun Heang both expressed a desire to open their own salons one day too.
Their ambitions were applauded by Khemara.
“I’ve thought already that they are progressing well with a bright future ahead. I believe they are role models for the disabled community. If possible, I’ll help them to open their own salon and run it successfully after they stop working at my place."
“I believe they can run a beauty business on their own when their skills are acknowledged for their creativity and quality. I think their successful story will help to empower their disabled friends. Now my salon has two locations and I’ll expand it to broaden the job market for deaf people,” she says.
Bi Salon is located on Street 310 in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang I district. You can visit their Facebook page for more information (@Bisalon2011).