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?"