The Blind Must Demand Good Service
By Rich Laine

I've been blind for several years, so thought by now I've encountered most of the difficulties that pop up in everyday life. But a recent trip to Kohl's department store reminded me never to let my guard down.

I've accepted that, being blind, there are things in life which I won't ever master. I muddle through when they occur. Trying to butter a slice of bread without tearing a hole in it, or leaving dry patches on it, is a particular challenge. Finding something that has dropped to the floor is almost always a frustrating nuisance. Sewing a button on a shirt, even when successful, often results in some unique stitching patterns. And, getting on the Metro North train in the split seconds they allow for boarding can find me engaging in some fancy footwork that would rival Michael Jackson's technique in his prime!

In other instances, I gladly accept assistance. In my own town, I've worked hard to establish a network of people who are reliable and very helpful. In the supermarket, the bookkeeper is always happy to drop what she's doing to assist me in food shopping. She even looks out for weekly sales and coupons she knows I'll be interested in. For local travel, a network of cabbies familiar with my difficult-to-locate residence make getting around town easy. A neighbor often calls to ask if I need anything from the store she and her husband are going to. No repair job is too small for a local handyman I've done business with for 25 years. Another friend will rise to the rescue if I'm baffled by why my TV suddenly isn't turning on.

But no network is foolproof! Witness my recent bizarre episode at Kohl's department store!

Kohl's, I thought, was neatly included in my network. Prompt and reliable assistance could always be counted on. Well, granted, that reliable assistance sometimes was a bit sketchy--assistance by male employees sometimes yielded less than perfect results. That is, until this one unsettling trip. The person provided to assist me was a woman--a very good sign indeed. Except that she spoke only Spanish!

She was obviously a very nice person, who was eager to help. But let me explain my dilemma further. My mother was Spanish, and that was her first language. My father was Finnish, and that was his first language. They communicated in English, and neither one taught me their native tongue, so I became an English speaker to the core, with a sprinkling of Spanish all that I know of a second language.

So there I was in Kohl's. How to go about buying two pairs of pants, each of a different color and with two waist sizes each to find the ones with the best fit; a belt of a specific design; some pillow cases; and crew socks in brown. What are crew socks called in Spanish? Dios mio!

I won't belabor this narrative, reviewing item by item what transpired. By using hand gestures, by referring to some items I had fortunately brought with me to illustrate what I wanted, by corraling other customers to describe the belts on the rack, by awkwardly using an occasional Spanish word, and by getting assistance from some other store employees, reluctant to get too involved, I gathered what I hoped were the correct items I wanted.

I ended up in the dressing room to try on the pants. After some time had passed, I realized that the temperature in the room was stifling, and my breathing got heavy as my asthma kicked in. I fumbled for the door latch, and stumbled out of the room, my shopping assistant gone. But, to the rescue, an English-speaking employee, herself shopping on her day off, who has helped me in the past, got me to cooler air and a chair outside in the main area. Regaining my composure, I was eager to leave.

When I got home, I found that I had three packages of socks instead of the two I wanted and a belt that is not exactly the design I wanted. The pants aren't made of the material I was hoping for; I had taken them reluctantly since they were a good fit and were the color I wanted (thanks to the color identifier I had brought with me). The pillow cases were perfect.

Of course, as blind individuals, we often find ourselves having to settle for a resolution to situations that is less than what we had hoped for. But, as I thought about what had happened, I realized I had been much to blame for this disturbing experience. I told myself: Next time when shopping, when caught by surprise, stop to take stock of what's happening and remember that you deserve the same level of customer satisfaction as does any other customer. This time, when confronted by this awkward situation, I had done a quick calculation, didn't want to cause the staff difficulties because of the short staffing they said they had, and so failed to appreciate the undue hassles I was about to endure myself--the result being that I treated myself worse than I should have expected the store to treat me.

What should I have done? When I was told that this was the only person available, I should have insisted on other arrangements, and, failing that, should have demanded to speak to the manager, reminding them that I deserved to receive a level of service appropriate for all customers. Maybe the result would have been better, maybe not, but I should have pushed the issue. I fell into the trap of believing that as a blind customer I am a burden to this store and should be grateful for whatever service it's willing to provide. In fact, my money, not to mention the law, entitles me to expect a quality experience when shopping.

There are three morals to this story: (1) Challenges come at the most unexpected times; (2) you're never too old to learn new lessons; and (3) this Kohl's store certainly has a bit to learn about customer service.