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Julie Tamler

Reuben Tamler shows the challenges of opening a cooler door while in a wheelchair.


Shopping — and suffering

Advocates say modest changes can make a huge difference for supermarket patrons with disabilities

BRATTLEBORO—Members of the Inclusion Center, a Brattleboro-based organization for people with disabilities, have been talking lately about what it’s like for people with disabilities to go grocery shopping.

Inclusion Center Director Julie Tamler summed it up in one word: “Difficult.”

Tamler wants those without disabilities to understand “how difficult it is to even think about going shopping.”

While navigating through a cramped boutique in a wheelchair might seem like a scary idea, even shopping in a supermarket with wide aisles brings challenges to those with disabilities.

Tamler and members Krystale Aloise and Gail Kennedy-Haines described how a simple task for some becomes a cause of disappointment and exhaustion for others.

“You’re not feeling well, you have a hard time walking, you have to get your wheelchair or walker in the car, then find parking, then get out, then get your wheelchair or walker out, then you have to reach up and down to get items in the store. You’re in pain. You may have sensory issues, and you have to maneuver around the floor racks, it’s like an obstacle course,” Tamler said.

“There’s not enough handicapped parking,” said Kennedy-Haines, who added, “my hugest, all-time pet peeve is people who put their empty shopping baskets in the handicapped spot!” Tamler pointed out that at some stores, the handicapped parking spots are where the snowplows “push all the snow.”

“It’s not just walking to the store, but you have to walk around the store. It’s a challenge. Even if I use the scooter at the store, it’s hard. I don’t know my dimensions, and it has a wide wheel-base, so I bump into things ... and it’s hard to control the speed if using your hands is a challenge,” said Kennedy-Haines.

’It’s an ordeal’

The frozen food section is the hardest to shop, said Kennedy-Haines, who pointed out the challenge of opening the door and getting items out of the freezer and into a cart while also navigating a wheelchair.

“It’s easiest to stand” up out of the chair to reach freezer items, said Aloise. But that option leads to further vulnerability, Aloise said, because judgmental shoppers “stare at you when you get out of the chair.”

When a person shops while sitting in a wheelchair or scooter, they have access only to items at “sitting level,” said Kennedy-Haines, who pointed out “this is where all the expensive stuff is.”

“The cheaper stuff is higher and lower, but I can’t reach them,” she said.

Disabled shoppers can ask strangers for help reaching lower or higher items — if another shopper is nearby.

But, “it’s demeaning to keep asking. I think I should be able to have access to everything,” Kennedy-Haines said.

Then, when it comes time to pay, more challenges arise.

“The checkout aisles are too narrow. In the scooter, I can’t reach all of the things in the basket. I’m slow, and the people behind me become enraged,” said Kennedy-Haines.

“People say nasty things, they stamp their feet,” when they are behind a slow-moving person in the checkout aisle, Tamler said. “You feel terrible."

But it’s not over.

“Then you have to put your groceries in the car, then you have to go home and put your groceries away. It’s an ordeal,” said Tamler.

“How do you load your groceries in the car, when you use a walker?” Kennedy-Haines said.

Working for changes

Shopping isn’t just difficult for those with disabilities, Tamler said. It’s also “shopping hell” for anyone accompanying an elder with dementia or an autistic child. “How do I keep them safe? What about people who make comments and stare?” she said.

“Store owners don’t often think about our needs,” Tamler said, but, “we’re educating them."

So, how can merchants make it easier for disabled people to spend money in their stores?

The Inclusion Center’s members have some suggestions.

“Turn down the music and dim the lights a bit” for those with sensory disabilities, said Kennedy-Haines. Fluorescent lights can trigger epilepsy, she added.

Designate “slow” check-out lanes during off hours. Install one wider check-out lane to accommodate wheelchairs, walkers, and scooters. Tamler noted this can help parents shopping with children, even if no one is disabled.

Have cashiers ask every customer if they need help getting their groceries to the car.

“It’s much more empowering to be asked, than to have to ask. Any time one can be given options, and be allowed to choose for themselves, leads to a great deal of self-esteem,” Kennedy-Haines said.

Bring in designated workers or volunteers to help disabled people shop, especially to reach items high up or down low on shelves. “People with disabilities can do these jobs, too,” Tamler noted.

Kennedy-Haines had a suggestion for other shoppers to support people with sensory disabilities: Tone down the perfume and cologne.

“We can be thrown off by scents. It’s hard to pick out your pasta sauce when you’re standing next to someone who marinated in their perfume,” she said. “I’ve had to abandon my cart” because of nausea.

Tamler said she has tried working with the managers of local grocery stores to make their stores more accessible to members of the disability community.

“With the big grocery stores, they told me I have to go to their headquarters, and my plan is to reach out to all of them,” Tamler said. “I expect a positive response."

Accessibility at the Co-op

One local grocery store where the Inclusion Center has found some success is the Brattleboro Food Co-op.

Tamler met with Co-op General Manager Sabine Rhyne in early February. Tamler described the store’s staff as “readily amenable."

“We try to be as thoughtful as possible,” Rhyne told The Commons. “I want to know if what we do is not useful, so I’m thankful to the Inclusion Center for coming to us,” she said.

Rhyne listed some of the ways the Co-op offers an easier shopping experience for its disabled customers — whether intentionally or accidentally.

While those with sensory issues may find a more soothing experience at the Co-op because “our lighting is not as bright as in the big stores,” Rhyne said other customers have complained the Co-op’s sales floor is too dark.

Rather than change the entire lighting design, the store now has some more focused lights in its grocery aisles.

The Co-op staff offers shopping assistance upon request, Rhyne said, noting, “I’ve done it more than once.” Customers in need of help should visit the Shareholder Services desk, she said.

To further assist customers with disabilities, Rhyne and her staff collected and analyzed traffic pattern data to share with the Inclusion Center. During hours when the store is quieter, “people who move slower can easily park and shop,” Rhyne said.

’If we can, we will’

Although the Co-op doesn’t have a designated handicapped checkout lane, the register closest to the cafe is wider than the others, Rhyne noted.

The “relaxed checkout lane” is a suggestion she and her staff “can’t figure out” how to implement, but Rhyne believes the data showing the store’s slower times will help that issue “by default.”

After hearing from members of the Inclusion Center that the Co-op’s electric cart is unwieldy, Rhyne began researching a smaller, more nimble replacement. “I’m adding it to the budget as soon as I can,” she said.

“We do have several individuals with disabilities working at the Co-op, and some are members of the Inclusion Center,” said Rhyne, noting one employee’s recent 10-year anniversary working at the store. “We have some members of the disabled community who are beloved members of the Co-op community,” she said.

Rhyne reiterated the Co-op’s support of all customers, including those with disabilities. “If we can, we will” make changes to make shopping easier, she said, adding, “we’re open to all sorts of questions."

Grocery managers working with the disability community “makes so much sense. We’re not asking for anything big. We’re not asking them to rebuild their grocery stores,” Tamler said.

And, Tamler notes, making small changes to help disabled people buy groceries isn’t just a good moral decision; it’s also a good business practice.

As Tamler pointed out, “It will bring in more people."

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Originally published in The Commons issue #399 (Wednesday, March 15, 2017).

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