Unless you’ve recently switched to exclusive online orders, delivery services, and the wonderful world that is Amazon Prime, you have to go shopping at some point. Most people in my life dislike shopping for various reasons: crowds, hunting for your usual items after the store rearranged for the fifth time this year, etc. But what is shopping like with low vision and light sensitivity? It’s as if you turned all of those issues up a few notches.
I’ll refer to light sensitivity and photophobia interchangeably because they are one and the same. I will also refer to low vision, which is usually a term referring to those who qualify as legally blind.
Getting Out of the House
Most days, finding a ride for shopping is fine. I go when my mother goes, or my fiancé and I go together. Those are usually the only two options I have available to me though. If the weather is beautiful and sunny outside, my photophobia can present an additional problem. Bright sunlight makes scanning busy parking lots a challenge for sure, but because I always do my shopping with another person, this problem can be minimized by walking with someone. I never travel without my sunglasses, and I can always throw a hat on for some added sun protection for my eyes.
I’d like to say I use a cane, but this is one area where I know I need to do better. I feel so silly using a white cane when walking with someone else or when walking in an area I’m familiar with. Those are silly reasons not to use a cane, but I think my reluctance comes from a lack of confidence and training and self-consciousness and pride. My ultimate goal Is to get true Orientation and Mobility (often called O&M for short) training so that I can feel confident in independently traveling with a cane and with using a cane around others.
In the Store
Finding the Entrance
Wandering into a grocery store, supermarket, or any other variety of stores presents several challenges to someone with low vision and photophobia. When entering a store that I’m not familiar with, I will undoubtedly have trouble finding the correct entrance and figuring out if the door is push, pull, or automatic. Once inside I need to orient myself to where certain items are located. This can be nearly impossible in a new store, especially a new grocery store. In my usual stores, I memorize most of the layout but still find myself wandering down the wrong aisles. The overhead signs in these stores are not big enough for me to read, so I either ask my shopping companion, wander down aisles until I find the right one, or I would need to use a monocular or smartphone camera to read the signs. This searching can make shopping more tedious and time-consuming than it needs to be.
The next big hurdle is store lighting. Most supermarkets and grocery stores are lit with harsh fluorescents and sky lights. Some even have reflective white floors that add to the glare of these bright stores. I’m sure that most people find all of that light helpful, but I find it painful. It is literally painful most days. That much glare can lead to eye pain, a headache, or even trigger a migraine. I know, I Know. This sounds like some overdramatization, but I assure that I am writing what I and many others literally experience.
Makeup shelves are an entirely different issue. Though those counters and shelves are well-lit to the average person, they are intensely direct and bright to a person with photophobia. So, I’m scanning the aisles again looking for my brand label, most of which I can read in the average supermarket or drug store. But once I find the brand, my struggle begins. Those lights are so intense and white, so I’m forced to squint at the shelves and pick one item up at a time in order to decipher what that item is, what shade, and how it should be used. For someone who is a novice at applying makeup, I have to go in the store with a plan rather than leisurely browsing the shelves for something that I might enjoy using.
Another aisle I struggle with is the vitamin and supplement aisle. All of those bottle labels look so similar. Scanning a shelf or an entire aisle is not easy when you need to be inches from a bottle to read it. Many of these aisles are alphabetized, but that isn’t always a perfect system or it’s often in disarray.
I have certainly ordered multivitamins and supplements online in the past in order to make things easier on myself.
At the Checkout
I’ve seen so many posts recently about self-checkouts filled with anger and frustration. After using one primarily for the past few years, I honestly don’t have an issue with them. I accept them as a way of life at this point, and I enjoy having the ability to see each item’s price as I scan items. I struggled with traditional registers that had a tiny screen with green text on a black background for displaying item totals and final total cost. The change to self-checkouts definitely has both pros and cons for me, but they’re here to stay.
Looking up items is sometimes difficult if I’m purchasing a produce item that I’m unfamiliar with, but most of these items come with some form of sticker or bar code that can be scanned. The ease-of-use on these machines really has improved over the last few years.
Paying on any credit card machine is still a challenge though. Some of these machines are impossible to read when new, but after much customer abuse, they can become even more of a challenge. These are used everywhere from grocery stores to clothing stores and convenience stores. Going into a store and using these machines does sometimes give me a bit of anxiety for this reason, but I’ve found that cashiers are more often than not very willing to help me out if they see me struggling or I ask for help.
I honestly have never had a bad experience when asking for help while shopping. At least, I don’t remember having a bad experience.
What We Can Do to Make Shopping a Better Experience
- Order online for delivery or pickup if those options are available to you.
- Make a list and organize it by your store’s layout if possible. I use Google Keep for this purpose.
- Take a companion, or don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Take sunglasses. Always. Just in case. I’ve gone into a store feeling fine and come out with a headache from the lights.
I did not intend this post to be a list of complaints. I actually enjoy getting out of the house, browsing the store for new items, and just leisurely strolling through the store. But for me and so many others, these struggles are very real. I definitely find visiting the store worth the effort most days, but I think most people without low vision or photophobia have no idea these issues exist for some people. So, here I am creating some awareness. Please share, and do be kind if a random stranger asks you for help while shopping.
If you’re someone with low vision, photophobia, or other issues that make shopping a struggle, you are not alone. Thank you for reading.