Shopping in the dark

'What colour do you want?' the assistant asked the blind customer. No wonder they are fed up, says Glenda Cooper

Jane Vernon doesn't like male shop assistants choosing her knickers. If she wants filter coffee, she doesn't want to be given instant. And she wants to know how much something is before she buys it. Hardly unreasonable. But these are all indignities to which she has been subjected because she is blind and must rely on assistants to accompany her.

One million consumers - one in 60 people - in Britain are blind, and with an ageing population the figure is likely to grow all the time. But retailers and manufacturers have not fully woken up to the fact, according to a survey by the Royal National Institute for the Blind published yesterday.

Blind people are now better off, thanks to the Disability Living Allowance of 1991, yet many organisations still persist in ignoring the spending power blind people have. They have also benefited from improved technology - a growing number of blind people have access to computers (with audio or braille output) into which they can scan information. But there are still few braille labels on consumer products. The RNIB have wanted tactile signs on products and supermarket shelves for a long time and have been campaigning for them on a national level since 1993, when the See It Right campaign, which tomorrow announces its annual awards for most- improved organisations, was launched.

Earlier this year, a European directive made it obligatory to put embossed triangle signs, signifying danger, on toxic and corrosive products such as bleach, but a spokeswoman for the RNIB said supermarkets and food producers had been "reluctant" to expand on this by introducing braille labels on other products: "The supermarkets say it's the food producers' responsibility and vice versa."

Practical problems include weight of material - labels on cans are too thin to withstand a braille imprint, as is the plastic used on bread packaging, for example. For thicker plastic, used to package products such as bleach, yoghurt and milk, braille could be imprinted in the plastic mould. But the initial outlay, say manufacturers, is too high. The introduction of the danger triangle cost industry pounds 25 million. It costs a further pounds 15 million a year to maintain.

If choosing your knickers or your baked beans is problematic (shopping was one of the top three frustrations for a third of those polled), getting to the supermarket can also be very tricky. Public transport, according to June Bretherton, 53, who runs her own conference consultancy, can be a minefield. Nearly half of those polled did not use public transport on their own because they were so hard to negotiate.

Ms Betherton herself finally lost patience four years ago: "I was on a tube going from High Street Kensington to Euston when we got to Great Portland Street. A passenger assumed that because I was blind, I would get off there because that's where the RNIB is based. She was trying to manhandle me off the train. It was as if a blind person wasn't supposed to go anywhere else on the Tube but Great Portland Street."

Today Sainsbury's launches its "Helping Hands" initiative, which will increase tactile signs in its shops, particularly on toilets, and other customer information, and warn the partially sighted of glass partitions by different-coloured strips. But, at grassroots, the message is not always getting through.

"I've been taken round with assistants who can't read or those who point and say 'Do you want this can of beans or that one?' says 28-year-old Ms Vernon, the first visually impaired woman to pass the Bar finals since 1987. "I've even been asked, 'What colour is the packet that you want?' You often get people who aren't particularly good. In one Asda, I resorted to finding out when a particular assistant was working so I could go in when he was off-duty.

"I went to Marks & Spencer just before I was going on holiday and said I wanted luggage, underwear and shoes. They brought me a male assistant. I didn't want to choose my knickers with him. In the past I'd have put up with things like that, but now I'd feel strongly enough to say no." It worked, and a female assistant was found.

Most consumer changes have not been due to legal requirements or philanthropy, says Ms Bretherton. "We were helped by the recession. Everybody needed money - they needed any type of customer, and they would get the customers in by providing what they wanted."

The RNIB is calling for all written information to be available in different formats; for stops to be announced on buses, tubes and trains, for supermarkets to change layouts less often and have assistants ready to help. But there is still much to be done if organisations are not to lose vital income from a large consumer group.

Last Friday, I accompanied Jane Vernon on her weekly shop at Tesco Metro in Covent Garden, London. After a five-minute wait for an assistant she was hurried round at top speed, then left alone in the checkout queue, at some distance from the actual till. The checkout assistant, who could lipread, was actually mute. Embarrassing moments passed as the assistant silently mouthed at Jane until it became obvious to me why neither could communicate with the other.

Outside, Jane was furious: "That was a disaster. They left me alone, in the wrong place, in a very embarrassing position. Was that their idea of a joke?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisors are r...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Manager

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Compliance Manager is require...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map