Saturday, February 28, 2009

Visually impaired hairstylist still does a great job

Cathy Steed has learned during her 50 years of life that people see with more than their eyes.

Steed has macular degeneration, a condition that affects her central vision.

Although the condition has left her legally blind and unable to drive, Steed has enjoyed a 27-year career as a hairstylist and for the past five years has operated Cathy's Beauty Barn at 16. E. Jackson St.

"I had large-printed books but I was kind of determined not to use 'em, so I stuck my nose down to the book when nobody was looking," Steed says of her school girl days. "I didn't want people to know. I really had a real rough time with people knowing I couldn't see good, but at 50 years old, you look back that it's nothing to be ashamed of. Having a disability is nothing to be ashamed of. Basically, you just learn other ways of coping with it. Really, everybody has a disability in their own way."

Dr. Winston C. May, a 65-year-old retired optometrist who practiced for 33 years in Manassas and specialized in treating patients with low vision, recalls seeing Steed at Optometric Associates PC, which still exists and carries on his work.

Macular degeneration is being treated with some success with very recent medical advances.

May says he's not surprised that Steed has enjoyed a successful career as a hairstylist, "just because of the adaptation of the other senses, and that's extremely important for anybody that's visually impaired. They utilize their other senses to compensate for their loss."

Steed says she always wanted to become a hairstylist and learned the trade at the Front Royal Beauty School. She says she explains to customers who ask her about her disability how she overcomes it.

"Like being able to feel the texture of the hair," she says. "Touching the hair and those kind of things are just as important, but people usually who can see, usually they kind of do it by seeing. I do it by more like feeling it, texturizing it, things like that. It's just a different way."

Steed has a monitor that helps her read small print on items that she uses in styling hair.

"Anything you put under it, it magnifies it and it's like a bright light behind it," she says. "It can be a bottle or anything. It just comes out flat, and it comes up on the screen so you can read it. A lot of things I can't do, but you just gotta find another way of doing 'em."

Steed says she especially enjoys working with cancer patients who have lost their hair and helping them with their appearance. Both of her parents died with cancer, Steed says.

"I can probably relate to [cancer patients] better because basically I can kind of see that if their hair is real important to 'em and basically it's like I can tell that they're real down and things like that. I know how you can feel when your appearance looks bad and you know just by fixing 'em up and explaining to 'em even though they might not ever get their hair back completely, there's lots of things they can do that make 'em look really good. There's lots of people [who] wear extensions or add-ons or anything that completely make 'em look better than before."

Steed has had her share of adversity in life, including the loss of her husband, Clark Steed, who died four years ago at the age of 46 as the result of multiple sclerosis. The Steeds have two children, Travis, 23, and Charity, 18. She has two grandchildren.

"It's very hard for some people to realize that in life the most important things are right around us," Steed says. "I told my son when he went in the Navy, I said, there's certain things you just can't buy. It's sort of around us what really makes us happy, but we just don't see it till we lose it."

Steed says when her husband died, her son asked her why.

"I said, well you gotta feel lucky because all the years that you did have him because some people never have that," Steed says. "My husband was a good husband and some people never find that, so I feel lucky that I found it for that many years. Just like seeing things, some people don't see right what's in front of 'em."

Steed says she is grateful for her family and her extended family of customers. She says in its own way, her beauty shop is kind of like the one in the hit movie, "Steel Magnolias," which revolved around the lives of women associated with a small Southern beauty shop.

"Yeah, cause they all hang out here Friday night," Steed says. "We have quite a few ladies just come in. Sometimes we get pizza. It's almost like family if they come in and they become your friends. It's like you do their hair, but yet you know all about their life. It's like if the husband comes in or the wife comes in, you hear all what's going on in their family and stuff."

Steed tries to maintain a youthful appearance and doesn't feel sorry for herself because of her lack of vision. The thing she wishes she could do most is drive.

"I don't look at it like, what's gonna happen to me," she says. "None of us know what's gonna happen. I just look at it like something in time will fix the problem."

Charity Steed says her mother is like most moms.

"Yeah, she was pretty much like the basic average mom," she says. "We had to help her a little bit with different things that she couldn't do. But other than that, I mean I wouldn't trade her for nobody else."

And neither would Steed's customers.

"I have some customers that's been with me since I got out of beauty school," Steed says.

Vickie Wright, 44, of Front Royal, says Steed has been doing her hair for 15 to 20 years.

"She's pretty patient with the clientele," Wright says. "If have any I doubts, if I think there's a piece that's not right, 90 percent of the time I'm wrong. She's pretty good. I've had other people cut my hair, and she's done just as well as a person with vision. In my opinion, it takes a brave person to try to come out and do something like that who has a disability of that nature. Who would ever think somebody would cut hair who couldn't see? It really is inspiring. That's one person who really is amazing in my opinion. I've seen Cathy for years and she really is good."

Mary Potter, 65, of Linden, agrees.

"She's just a very pleasant person," Potter says. "I like the way she cuts my hair. We discuss hairstyles and what would be good and what would not be good. She makes you feel good. She makes you feel like family."

* Contact Ben Orcutt at


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