I watched and learned

A number of people might have had unkind things to say when Laurence Johnson started barbering at 20 years old, but the deaf man obviously couldn’t hear his critics.

Now nearly 25 years later, Johnson is revered as the most sought after barber in the cool rural community of Cascade, St Ann, and one of the most skilled in Christiana, Manchester, where he practises on weekdays.

“When I was growing, from about age 14, I used to sit and watch the barber cut people’s hair, so I watched and learned,” Johnson, who was born deaf, told the Jamaica Observer in an interview via text message. “I have always been an independent person. I don’t like to depend on anyone but myself. I am self-motivated,” he said.

When visited at the barbershop in Frazer, St Ann, where he works on weekends, it was obvious that the communication barrier between the barber and his hearing clients had long been broken down.

As a client sat in Johnson’s chair, he used his hand to make a sweeping gesture at the sides and back of his head. Johnson touched his beard, and the man used his finger to outline the shape that he wanted it to be cut in. The barber got to work.

“From me know myself him a trim me, so me get used to him,” a young man who was waiting for his haircut said. “At first my mother used to sign to him and tell him what to do to my hair. No official sign language or anything, but him understand. Then when I got old enough to come by myself, I just follow what I see other people do. If I see somebody getting a style that I want, I just point to them. Now I just text on my phone and show him, or bring a picture.”

Another community member told the Observer that she learned to communicate with Johnson through trial and error.

“The first time he cut my son’s hair I didn’t really understand when he pointed in his ‘hand middle’; he was asking if he was to bald [cut] it [all] off, so I let him cut off too much,” she recalled, laughing. “The next time I went back I pointed at my hand middle then said no, and he didn’t take off so much.”

Meanwhile, Johnson had finished working with the client in his chair. The man mouthed “How much?”, and the barber held up five fingers. The man paid, gave a thumbs up, and left.

Johnson said his favourite thing about being a barber is seeing the smiles on his customers’ faces when they get out of his chair and look in the mirror.

“I like pleasing my customers,” he said.

“A lot of people look down on us because we are deaf,” Johnson continued via text. “They even make fun of us, but we don’t give up easily. My boss helps me out sometimes to communicate with the new customers because I teach him a little sign language, but I can read lips as well.”

Romaine Rowe, who owns the salon, said he is learning a lot by working with Johnson.

“Him know him thing, man,” he affirmed. “Years and years him a do this. I learn a lot from him because I am new to the trade. He gets along well with people and we show him due respect.”

Johnson recounted that he grew up “happy, young and naive” in the rural community.

“One of my brothers is deaf, too. I am just one year older than him and we look like twins!” he exclaimed.

Johnson attended St Christopher’s School for the Deaf in Brown’s Town, St Ann, until he was 12 years old, then moved to St Andrew where he attended Lister Mair/Gilby High School for the Deaf in Papine. It was there that he set his sights on becoming a barber, and never looked back.

“When I came back here to be a barber some people treated me good and some not so good,” he said. “Even now, sometimes I get bad attitudes; but even if those people could hear me I wouldn’t have anything to say to them. I don’t let things bother me.”

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