Never say the word “can’t” to Martha Alanis. It doesn’t exist in her vocabulary.
Alanis, 18, has lived with physical challenges since birth, and while others might see those challenges as limitations, Alanis doesn’t. “My parents never treated me differently than my brother,” she said. “So I have never seen myself as disabled.”
She doesn’t deny the challenges she faces getting around in a wheelchair. “There have been times when I’ve thought things may be too difficult, but I go for it anyway,” she said. “I’ve never seen my disability as something bad. I’ve seen it as an opportunity.” An opportunity, Alanis says, to inspire people by showing them she can do something they would have considered impossible for her.
Training to be a cosmetologist is a perfect example. Alanis has been drawn to hair styling and make-up for as long as she can remember, so two years ago, she applied for McAllen ISD’s cosmetology class. Cosmetology is a two-year course. In the first year, students learn to cut hair, apply make-up and give manicures and pedicures. The second year involves color and other chemical applications. Second-year students also begin accepting clients from the community.
Alanis knew she had stiff competition, but she also had the desire to make it happen. And happen it did.
“I had heard so many wonderful things about her from her teachers,” said cosmetology teacher Letty Oliva. “I was actually excited that she applied. If she was motivated, I wanted her.”
Oliva scheduled an interview for Martha. “Her interview was very impressive,” Alanis said.
Oliva tallied the points Martha earned from each section of the application process and determined that her score secured her a spot in the class. Oliva admittedly had some concerns, especially about accessibility and how other students in the course might treat her. “She needed to be emotionally prepared,” Alanis said.
Oliva had a meeting with Alanis and openly shared her concerns. She also met with the district’s occupational therapist and other individuals to discuss accessibility concerns. Finally, Oliva met with Alanis’ mother to figure out how to best meet her needs.
At the time, Alanis had a new standard power wheelchair. This posed a problem in the cosmetology classroom because towels are stored in high cabinets. Alanis’ wheelchair would also prohibit her from reaching the standard cosmetologists’ stations. A discussion ensued about purchasing a new wheelchair for Alanis or making construction changes in the classroom.
“But then, at church, I saw a man with the same kind of wheelchair as Martha,” Oliva said. “And his chair had hydraulics. I thought to myself, ‘Why couldn’t they do that to Martha’s chair?’”
Oliva returned to work and shared what she had seen with pertinent personnel. They contacted the wheelchair company, and sure enough, Martha’s chair could be fitted with hydraulics. Her chair now extends high enough to reach the work station and the towels.
“I feel so independent now,” Alanis said, a smile spreading across her face. “I can reach towels in the cabinets here, and I can reach whatever I want in the cabinets at home, too. I don’t have to ask others to help me any more.”
There have been other changes, as well. “It’s made a world of difference with camaraderie,” said Oliva. “Before, Martha could only work at the low table. Now she’s working right alongside the other students. She is challenged and has become more competitive. It has given her so much self-confidence.”
Alanis exhibited that self-confidence at a recent Skills USA competition. One part of this competition involves designing and creating a project and bringing it to the contest. The other part requires the cosmetology students to give facials and apply make-up at the event. They must apply both day and fantasy make-up.
Anticipation built in the days leading up to the contest. Alanis could hardly wait to put all the skills she had learned to use. “I thought it was amazing,” said her classmate and fellow senior, Danielle Aguilar. Aguilar served as Alanis’ model in the competition. “I was surprised by the number of people complimenting her and taking pictures. They were all saying, ‘I love it.’” At the end of the competition, Alanis earned fourth place out of 32 contestants.
Spectators looked beyond the wheelchair to Alanis’ obvious talent in the same way her customers this year have. “They have never treated me differently,” she said. For that, she is grateful. “I hate when people look at me like ‘poor thing.’ They don’t see that we can do so many things, maybe just in a different way.”
In May, Alanis will take the state exam. First she must take a 100-question multiple-choice test on the computer. A passing score will allow her to move to the practical application segment of the test. She will be required to do a perm wrap, a mock chemical application, a facial massage, a haircut and a manicure. If she passes, she will be a licensed cosmetologist.
Alanis plans to take that license to the next level. “I want to go to UTPA to study business management,” she said. “I want to have my own business where I specialize in make-up and give pedicures as a hobby.” While others may shy away from feet, Alanis loves giving pedicures. “It’s fun,” she said.
There’s more to applying make-up than meets the eye, according to Alanis. “Make-up isn’t just putting any color on someone. You have to look at each person to choose the right colors. It’s an art.”
Alanis’ mom has inspired her throughout her life. “She’s not afraid of taking chances,” Alanis said. “She’s very positive.”
Like mother, like daughter. Inspired by her mom, this soon-to-be graduate in turn inspires everyone she meets.