In this week’s blog, Judith Furse explores some of the myriad difficulties facing the visually impaired shopper and shares some poignant and amusing memories of the shopping experience.

Do you remember shopping on the high street?

You bought meat at the butcher’s, fish at the fishmonger’s, and fruit and veg at the greengrocer’s. I can recall shopping with my mother when I was a child. As my sight deteriorated, I found I could still identify the shops we visited by their smell. Even the wool shop had its own individual perfume, sweet and moist, like opening the airing cupboard at home and sniffing the fresh laundry.

This technique was all very well, and vivid enough to my childish mind, but it wouldn’t be much help in a modern supermarket. Supermarkets present a particular challenge to the visually-impaired. These days, when I go to the Co-op, the only aisle I can reliably identify by its scent is the one containing cleaning products.

Many chains do offer assistance to visually impaired shoppers, which is a great idea in theory, but not always so wonderful in practice. One visually-impaired friend of mine gradually came to realise that the person the store had allocated to help him shop could see perfectly all right but couldn’t actually read, which made selecting products somewhat tricky!

It can sometimes be useful to take examples of packaging with you so that the helper can easily see what you want. It is easy to forget names and brands when the information isn’t constantly being reinforced by seeing them.

Then, of course, there are shopping centres.

These often consist of large stores with glass fronts. If you have only a small amount of sight, all the stores look the same and finding the entrance can be nearly impossible. Most shops are self-service, too so, unless you have a helper, you are at sea in a maze of rails and shelves.

Shopping for clothes has its own problems. You have to find someone to assist you whose judgment about colour and style you can really trust. I have heard of ingenious visually-impaired people who snap garments on their mobile phones and send the pictures to trusted friends and family. I prefer to take my long-suffering support worker and friend with me. She patiently helps me sift through rails of outfits and tells me honestly what she thinks when I try the clothes on.

It’s nice when she says, “Oh, that looks good on you, Judy,” but probably even more helpful when she tells me firmly, “That really doesn’t suit you at all!”

Internet shopping has been a great help to those of us who find physical shopping difficult, but it still has its limitations. For example, where clothes are concerned, I like to touch them before making a purchase. If I don’t like the feel of the material, I’m not going to enjoy wearing the item of clothing. Then again, however well styles are described on line, it is still incredibly difficult to visualise them accurately. What you imagine you are buying, based on the description your read on the Internet, is often very different from what turns up when your purchase finally arrives.

What I mind most, though, is not being able to mooch around shops, browsing the merchandise. My visual impairment means that I never have the experience of something catching my eye in a shop window, or of chancing upon that unusual gift in a craft shop somewhere. This might seem like a small matter, but it is a surprisingly poignant loss. I should like, therefore, to salute my friends and family who, over the years, have tried so hard to ameliorate this loss for me.

But let me finish with a funny story.

Back when I was a teenaged schoolgirl boarding at Chorleywood College, we used to hold illicit midnight feasts in the dormitory from time to time. On one occasion, we decided to go a little “upmarket” and, among other things, include cucumber sandwiches in our menu. One of the visually-impaired girls in our form was despatched to buy the ingredients. She entered a shop in the village and was surprised to be greeted warmly and offered a chair. She sat down.

“So, how can we help you?” she was asked.

She started to suspect that something was not right.

“This is the greengrocer’s?” she asked.

“No, we’re an estate agent,” came the reply.