Blind Customer

My friend Katie arrives at my house promptly at 10:00a.m., receiving an enthusiastic greeting from my parents and Ozzie, our cairn terrier. I walk to the front door, laden with preparations: my purse, a huge bag of books to turn in for credit at the used bookstore, and a handful of extra canvas bags for carrying our purchases. Obligingly, Katie offers to carry my bags, which I greatly appreciate. As yet, I have not developed a good system for carrying things in my arms and using my cane.

We begin our day at the Starbucks in Five Points. Eagerly, I order an iced vanilla latte and hand the cashier my Starbucks gift card – the one I refuse to discard because it has “Starbucks” on it in braille. The card was released back in October for Disability Awareness Month and it depicts autumn leaves beneath the braille. Every time I hand it to a cashier, he or she lets out a little “Oh!” of surprise; it starts a lot of great conversations.

Katie and I settle in with our coffee and a stack of my poetry, which she has agreed to edit for a chapbook I’m assembling. Coffee and editing is a heavenly combination! We spend about an hour going through poems, nodding in appreciation, crossing out letters, and reformatting lines. We finalize our itinerary for the day and toss out our empty coffee cups.

The first shop on our list is a store called Midnight Sun. A long-time favorite of ours, Midnight Sun offers an eclectic collection of merchandise – books on yoga and meditation, candles and incense, purses, wallets, and clothing, hair accessories, and lots of jewelry. The staff is friendly and helpful. They let me touch everything.

Often when I’m out shopping with a friend, she has to tell the sales assistant things like, “You can hand it [the object I’m considering for purchase] to her.” If I need her to get the assistant’s attention, she’ll say something like, “Excuse me, we have a question for you.” She will take a step back and let me do the talking. Other times, the assistant will continue to direct questions to my companion, so I clearly and deliberately answer each inquiry. In one extreme case, I asked an assistant for help finding a pretty common product – a box of pore strips – and, failing to understand me after my third repetition, she shouted to my friend (standing at the other end of the aisle), “Ma’am! Ma’am! What does she want? WHAT DOES SHE WANT?”

Cases like these are usually followed by a checkout experience where I am commended for being able to swipe my own debit card and correctly enter the pin. Most cashiers are dazzled by my ability to perform these tasks. Even cashiers who have been resolutely taciturn change their tune when they see me use my debit card with ease. My favorite instance of this? A surly cashier saw me swipe my card and burst out, loud enough for the rest of the store to hear, “Girl, that’s so good she can put in her own PIN!” This was the only thing she said to us.

My day of shopping with Katie stands in direct opposition to these unpleasant experiences. At Midnight Sun, the woman helping us places the objects that catch my interest in my hand. Without being prompted, she gives a brief verbal description of each, engaging me in conversation. When it’s time to check out, she offers me the PIN pad without excessive ceremony. She hands back my card and says, “Here’s your card back” – the verbal cue alerts me to the location of her hand. She does the same with the bag containing my purchases. I hear her say, “And here’s your bag.” Her voice and the crinkling of the bag make it easy for me to extend my hand and take the bag from her.

Throughout the day, I encounter employees that display a startling level of finesse with me – speaking to me directly, placing objects in my hand, telling me when they change the position of something I’m using, and giving me specific directions when I’m looking for something. At Moon River, the server places my refilled water cup on the table and says, “Here you go – here’s your water!” At Chamblin Bookmine, the woman behind the counter directs us to our favorite authors by using the words “right” and “left” and referencing aisle numbers – rather than the conventional, “It’s right there” that so many seem to prefer when directing me. At Grassroots, the cashier engages me in conversation and hands me my receipt and debit card with a helpful verbal cue. In each place, the employees engage both Katie and me in conversation

Perhaps these conversations facilitate the excellent treatment I receive. I wonder if it’s easier for a clerk to understand my capabilities – like entering my own PIN – if we’re already talking. Maybe it’s not a matter of understanding my needs and more an instance of doing what feels natural. The verbal cues and considerate descriptions that define good customer service for me have an uncomplicated, intuitive feel about them. I can’t imagine helpful clerks sitting behind the counter with a pad and pencil, nibbling on the eraser and thinking, “I wonder how I could help potential customers with low vision…”

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