Enhancing Orientation and Mobility Skills

 Part 2: Navigating Through the Grocery Store

Glossy, smooth floor, horizontal overhead lights. Two keys to orientation

I’m certain my orientation and mobility instructor took me to navigate through Giant Eagle Grocery chain before attempting the super-centers so I wouldn’t feel too intimidated. The layout of the grocery challenged me as my vision decreased. I had my share of “Where is the … moments” and if I have never purchased an item, say–bread crumbs–I still had to go down every aisle and, with my nose pressed to the shelf,  locate it. When you look so closely, sometimes you miss the big picture, like the signs in the aisles! 

I told my friend I was going to “de-bunk” the grocery store. 

“De-bunk the store? Are you  going shopping for fallacies today?” he asked, amused, as usual. 

Wrong word. Okay, there will be no de-bunking. I will navigate. I’m refreshing my mobility skills because the grocery store frustrates me. I sometimes get lost in the bigness of the chain. I can’t find the food I want. I run into people with my cart. In fact, I can’t use my cane and push a cart at the same time. I need solutions

“I’m terrified of knocking over those displays at the end of the aisle,” I admitted as we passed the pasta section.  No idle comment here. I had done it a number of times as I navigated through other stores, luckily not in this particular one. The worst knock-over was a Legs display holding women’s stockings that were sold in various colored large egg containers. They had rolled everywhere, across the aisles and under the shelves. Most shoppers stopped to stare. One kind soul  bent over to help me fetch some of the eggs. 

“Try a lighter touch,” my trainer said. “You walk fast. Slow down a little. Let your cane find the obstacle – lightly.”

Her response startled me. I expected only a knowing chuckle. However, my trainer’s job was to help me navigate so she was in problem-solving mode and, of course, I had a legitimate concern. She must have heard her share of grocery store gaffs. 

“Let’s navigate the perimeter first so we can get a feel for where things are,” she said. A minute later, she she had me run my cane over the floor surface in the produce section. “Do you feel the difference? This is tile and the blocks are bigger. The tip of your cane should signal the change to you.” 

“Yes, yes.” The flooring in the canned food section had been smoother. 

“Also, can you see any of the lights overhead?” 


“What direction are they facing?” 

I had to squint to discern but finally I could see they were lengthwise. 

“If you have enough residual vision, the lights are a good navigational clue. The lights should be facing the same direction you are when you are headed to the south-side of the store. ” 

Cardinal directions are helpful in orienting one in a store. Image: picture of a compass. 

“Oh. Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m in the front of the store or the back, let alone north or south.” 

My trainer explained that cardinal directions helped orient a person. “Let me show you, Do you have a compass on your phone?” 

I sheepishly admitted I did but didn’t know how to navigate with it. 

“Let’s practice now.  You don’t need voice-over?” 

“No, I can see close up.” 

“Remember to start at north. That would be the front of the store.”

As  my trainer helped me navigate through the various parts of the store, she taught me how to use the compass.”You have to keep it flat and point it in the direction you’re headed.” 

I learned that north was at the front of the store.

In addition to floor textures, lighting and cardinal directions, she pointed out how my sense of smell could help orient me. We navigated past the deli, then the bread section. She contrasted that with the detergent, soaps and cleaning agents when we reached those aisles.

“Temperature is another identifiable way of orienting yourself,” she instructed. As I swept through the frozen food section, she said, “Feel the cold?”

I nodded.

“There aren’t as many frozen food aisles, so you can probably categorize the order of what is contained more easily. Unfortunately, it’s a matter of memorization.” 

“Well, that will keep Alzheimer’s at bay, at least.” 

After an hour, my brain felt ready to explode. My trainer must have seen the expression on my face because she said we had covered the basics and I could practice more on my own. 

navigational tool
Image: picture of a red exit sign in a store

As we neared the exit, my trainer said, “Hang on. I’ll be right back.”

To my surprise, she had noticed a disabled man seated at a bench in front of the store and was giving her card to him. “People don’t know about our services,” she explained. “I just like to make them aware in case they need some help. He said he didn’t need it. But you never know.” 

Kindness is an inborn trait. I suppose it can be taught along with orientation and mobility, simply developing an awareness of the needs of others.

But I felt goosebumps I hadn’t felt since I had worked with Bob, my first instructor.  He had modeled ways for me to respond to others, downplaying my response in embarrassing situations (“Sweep away negative criticism.”)  and playing up ways to be pro-active and independent.

My new orientation and mobility instructor modeled kindness. I felt my heart swell with gratitude for another life lesson.  

Of course, I can’t see others all that well with my vision loss. But I can be observant with other senses. I can listen and respond with kindness to anyone. I can take others seriously when they reveal a fear. I can offer advice from whatever experience I have. Such lessons are orientation and mobility of the heart. 

We all model messages when we interact with others. It can be an offer of physical help as my orientation and mobility instructor quietly demonstrated or it can be offering an insight of understanding.

We went on to learn more navigational techniques in the plaza outside the grocery chain but what stands out most in my mind from that lesson was to orient myself to kindness. Like finding North, it’s the best place to start.

How do you feel about going to the grocery store? What is your favorite? Have you ever been in a grocery store too large? Have you ever had an instance of becoming lost? Do you prefer a small neighborhood grocer, a large chain? What’s your favorite section? 

You have just read “Enhancing Orientation and Mobility Skills: Part 2: Navigating Through the Grocery Store.” by Amy L. Bovaird. © January 9, 2016. 

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Navigating the Grocery Store
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2 thoughts on “Navigating the Grocery Store

  • January 10, 2017 at 2:41 pm

    I love that line “Orientation and Mobility of the Heart”!!!

    You new instructor sounds like a gem. And the tips she taught you will really be helpful to me, as well. I hadn’t thought about the direction of the lighting as a good indicator for direction in the store. And I wasn’t familiar with the change in flooring (except at, I think, Wegmans, in their organic section, I think they have bricks). It’s been a long time since I was there.

  • January 11, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    Hi Melissa,
    Yes, those tiny things we don’t notice DO make a difference. I am about to write up another O & M lesson.I will definitely have to check out Wegman’s and find their bricks. Thanks for taking time to read my post. PS I’ve market down Larry’s birthday on my calendar. Any suggestions? I’ll have to send it soon … and where to? Oh, PS I need your help on a senior project I’m working on for VisionAware!!
    Take care!

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