In my first ever blog as lockdown hit, I described an early lockdown shopping experience featuring some pretty unpleasant public behaviour. So, it now seems right that I share a recent experience to show the opposite. To make you read on, I also make a prize fool of myself.

Things started badly when I couldn’t remember my list. I put it in my phone a dozen times, but dictation kept making a hash of it. That or I kept carelessly deleting chunks of it by hurrying too much.

The walk to the shop was then surprisingly difficult. Unexpected roadworks, loads of uncollected bins and an oddly large number of people apologising for getting too close. Naturally, many didn’t realise that while I’m clattering bins with a stick, I had no idea they were even there. So that’s one rule-breaking environment already experienced and I’m nowhere near to buying my groceries. At least everybody was civil though.

I reach the first side road, all perfectly familiar, and then have the age-old experience of someone bellowing instructions thirty feet away. Nothing much in itself, it happens to blind people all the time, but as I felt the normal reaction kicking in, a quiet determination to convey that this isn’t helpful, I faltered and didn’t bother speaking. Was this a loss of confidence? In fact, was everything from the earlier phone clumsiness onwards a sign of nerves around stepping out the front door? Impossible to know, but perhaps for the first time, I realised that the rights and wrongs of guiding weren’t the only things on my mind in that moment. How else was this person going to make a decent offer of help if he couldn’t get within two metres of me? Sure, he could have just asked if I was OK, I’m aware of that, but was this my first warning that these little moments weren’t just about what I need as a blind shop-goer?

I then get to the queuing system outside the little local supermarket. By now, I have become familiar with this but that doesn’t help a bit. They have a kind of temporary railing outside the entrance which acts as a physical and visual guide for how the queue should form. As with everything, the queue naturally has to observe social distancing, so everybody lines up but miles apart. It’s comically contrary to normal, where everybody thinks they’ll get in a bit quicker if they’re practically stealing the next person’s clothes. I could have slalomed in and out of this one in a mini, theoretically anyway. All this meant I didn’t even know which direction the queue was going in. Indeed, there was no audible difference between people you just sense as you pass by and the actual queue. It was as if the world had suddenly been enlarged as I got close to the shop, but I’d stayed the same. Once I got inside would tins be as big as I am? Would I be able to climb in bags of crisps instead of buying them? Not a terrible idea now that I think about it.

Instead, what happened is that I stood outside for a minute before security saw me and called me in. The automatic doors are always shut so I couldn’t judge the movement of people for myself. What I thought was a static, silent queue was no queue at all. My face reddened as I went inside, but I took some pleasure in hearing someone call out to me that there was no queue. Better late than never and entirely the right kind of help to give at a pinch.

Now I’m inside and luckily getting help is quite smooth since they know me. As it’s a local branch, they don’t have trolleys, and this is a problem. Standing at the opposite end of a trolley from my appointed guide is a good way to stay distant while shopping - not an option here. I must simply take advantage of there being fewer people and keep a conversation going as I walk. This isn’t an elegant approach, but the flow of chat means I can follow them quite easily by sound, while the absence of crowds prevents collisions. If anything is in my way, the staff member can’t really help warning me because a conversation is already underway. It’s a pretty stilted sort of chat but needs must. It’s strange but I’m finding that the imperfect ways of guiding, the combination of muddled instructions and elbow grabbing, are quite a good way to get from A to B and broadly observe social distancing. You clearly come within the 2-metre zone sometimes but only very briefly as a rule. You do have to back yourself to follow someone in a place you don’t know but accepting this cobbled together solution has spared me the dreaded conversations about how I need the same access to food as anyone else. At the same time, it takes a lot of concentration and becomes tiring if you have to retrace your steps for something you’ve forgotten.

While on the subject of concentration. Mine seriously let me down here, or maybe it was my woeful multi-tasking. In any case, I wanted an avocado so asked for one. I was then asked to repeat myself no fewer than four times, the fourth being really quite loud on my part. I was then mystified when my guide asked if I knew where I was, that is to say, in a Sainsbury’s Local. I then had one of those moments when the whole world lurches and you suddenly realise what you’ve been doing. I’d repeatedly been asking for an Ocado, as in the shop (I know, posh git). I’d done it several times and grown quite loud and insistent. Well, as I said, this distant shopping is tough brain work. As I left, I heard their PA system announce that Willesden has finally identified its village idiot!

Once through the exit, I then misjudged the queuing set-up I mentioned and, found myself being guided out of a dead-end by a person who had just seized the other end of my cane. I know, unthinkable under normal circumstances. One of those things awareness raisers would always try to stop, and I obviously agree. However, as with the shouting man, I found myself realising that a slightly different tolerance level was needed with people who don’t know what they are supposed to do at the best of times, let alone now. So, I felt my natural reaction to this method well up and then dissipate just as fast.

The walk back home was mercifully painless but it got me thinking that while a lot of things have been rightly called for since lockdown began, a ‘new normal’ is going to apply to blind and partially sighted people as much as anyone. We are the ones with the knowledge, and we are therefore in the strongest position to influence quick behaviour change in an abnormal situation, one where people do seem more receptive than usual. We might just have to park one or two of our gut reactions to the things we often experience. Call it a kindness towards those who genuinely want to be kind to us. What I think I mean is that a bit of generosity with our communication and some flexibility with our normal standards for things like guiding. Maybe that’s why my man in the supermarket was himself quite patient with the guy who kept yelling the name of a rival retailer when he really just wanted something to spruce up a salad.

Andy Law, London Vision Development Manager, 3 June 2020. 

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