Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | October 22, 2012

An interaction in the grocery store

While I know this is really minor compared to some things people go through on a regular basis, and my visible disability is temporary, I just wanted to share a story that happened to me yesterday. Not for reactions, just to point out that things like this happen. All the time.

I’m still on crutches, and as such, need to go with someone to the grocery store. My friend and I have a deal that involves a weekly trip, and we’ve been shopping together for more than a year. I keep him on task (he spaces out a lot, plus, I know where everything in the stores we go to is, and can quote prices, too), and he deals with people for me. It’s a good trade. So anyway, we were on our way out of a store last night, and were about 20 steps away from the register and obviously headed that way, when I got assaulted from the side. I say “assaulted” because that’s what it felt like, even though there was no traditional violence. This woman who works for the store walked up to us and stood right in my blind spot, walking straight at me, orthogonal to the direction we were going. I spooked and shied away, and she kept getting closer to me. Then she said (loudly) to my friend, “she can use an electric chair. Electric. Chair.” I kind of muttered “no thanks, I’m fine” and she repeated herself “she can use an electric chair”, still in my bubble of space. My friend responded “thank you, but we’re going to check out now” while I made a dash for it, hopping/hobbling as fast as I could, not looking back. I’m not sure whether there was more interaction, but I didn’t stick around to see it.

Now, from her point of view, I’m sure she thought she was being nice and considerate – offering me information to make my shopping trip “easier”. But there were so many things wrong with this interaction. First of all, she talked right through me, as if I weren’t even there. Now, I’m autistic, so sometimes I am talked through, but it’s rare. I wasn’t flapping or displaying any other “autistic” behaviors that would’ve lead her to jump to that conclusion, so I’ve got to assume that it was the crutches. Then she physically acted like I wasn’t there, getting right up close to me, but then talking right over my head to my friend, as if I didn’t exist. I couldn’t easily duck or get away – limited mobility. I tried, and she got closer. Grocery stores are stressful enough, with people and carts and fluorescent lights and all the awful, and I was already about to overload, and just wanted out. But instead, I got treated to this. Then she never even bothered to talk to ME. She only talked to my friend. Who is a taller male. I’m not sure which of the many things made her think that HE would be talking for me – the maleness, the tallness, the ablebodiedness or what, but it sucked. Then when I responded (after having a massive “oh shit, verbal processing, words, come on words, lets work” moment while she was getting closer and louder), she didn’t listen, and felt the need to repeat herself, again to my friend and not me. And never once did she ask “would you like an electric chair” or even “would she like an electric chair”. No, I was told. No, actually, my friend was told.

Grocery store personnel, and other people in public service jobs, should be trained to treat people like people. She acted like I was completely invisible. Like she didn’t see me at all. She even got physically into my personal space, as if I didn’t exist. Then she talked about me, right over my head. And the thing is, I’m not mad or furious or hurt by this. I was so stressed out in the moment of the interaction that it took me until this morning to figure out what actually happened. I’m kind of confused, but I know what happened. I am aware of ablism and the nasty faces it takes. I’ve been at the butt of it on a few occasions, and I’ve read numerous peoples’ experiences with it on a daily basis. This was comparatively tame, and I have the luxury of knowing that when I’m finally off crutches and able to walk again, that it probably won’t happen again. (Until the next time I forget to watch where I’m walking, anyway…)

But now I’m terrified of going into the only major grocery store I’m comfortable with, because I’ve been sensory assaulted in there, and I don’t want to go through that again. Honestly, for me, the worst part of it wasn’t her talking over me. It wasn’t her ignoring my presence and talking to my friend, or rendering me mostly invisible. It was her complete lack of boundaries – coming into my bubble and staying there, even moving with me to continue to violate my space, all while talking loudly, that was the immediate problem for me. Only after the fact, did I realize exactly what had happened and perhaps why. It’s amazing how only a tiny little, rather commonplace, temporary visible disability can turn you in people’s minds from a person to a non-person. I can only imagine the disrespect and non-regard that comes from more.



  1. That is a world I live in. Strange how I can support others by communicating with the public, but inadequate when not working. When I’m working, the public ignores those I work for until I don’t respond. I force the public to notice. I’m good at that.

    It is definetly something society needs to work on.

  2. I am so sorry. I realize she may have wanted to help you, but she really needs common sense. I would send this to the store, with a caveat, that you don’t wish to get anyone in trouble but wish to prevent this from happening again. It would be good for employees to treat people like people and not invade personal space. Suggestions should be suggestions, not commands. Also, I presume she meant a scooter. An electric chair is not even used any longer in prisons.

    • Thanks… I might do that, actually. Yes, she meant scooter, but she certainly didn’t call it that. When I recounted this for my friend’s roommates, they laughed and made comments about electric chairs…

  3. Oh, wow, what an irritating thing to happen! Definitely call the store and speak to the manager. Tell him or her that they need to have some sensitivity training, then tell the story you posted here (short version) It’s often overlooked in supermarket chains, trust me.

    • Yeah, not calling hte store, that would involve the telephone and self-advocacy, two things that well, the first stops the second. I might send them an email though… I have no memory of who the employee was, but really, it doesn’t matter…

  4. Wow, E, that is irritating. I attended college on one of the most accessible campuses in the US, and there were visibly disabled people all over the place. Plus I have the unofficial title of “accessibility cop” at work – making sure the web site is accessibile to those with visual or cognitive disabilities.

    That was definitely not okay, and you (or your friend, if words leave you) should have a word with the manager about your experience. That should help prevent this from happening to you (or someone else) in the future.

    • Yeah, hopefully I’ll get up the courage to send them some feedback. I certainly couldn’t go up to a manager and talk to hem. I have enough trouble asking about where the manager is. But if I do something, maybe it’ll help someone in the future from having to go through that. Thanks for the comment, and welcome, by the way 🙂

  5. Our neighborhood grocery store employs numerous autistic adults. Perhaps what you perceive as a rude individual ignoring you while inappropriately entering your space was such an employee. Just a thought….

  6. Another word for it is “power chair” (though I think that’s what they use for power chairs that aren’t scooter shaped, hope that makes sense). But yeah, her vocabulary confusion is a relatively minor issue in this. She shouldn’t have invaded your personal space — annoying enough for anyone with or without any type of disability, but I can imagine it’s even more disruptive for someone on the autism spectrum. And yeah, suggestions should be suggestions never commands because they just don’t know enough about your situation to know what your needs are. For example, there’s one blog that used to be maintained by a woman (who now occupies her time with other things, hence past tense) with some kind of back injury who actually finds it less painful to be in either a standing position or a lying down position and rarely sits at all unless she knows she will be able to settle in there for a while, AND it’s the right kind of chair and a bunch of other needed conditions are in place. Thus, a power chair or scooter doesn’t really help her much–a segeway maybe would because you stand on that, but nothing that requires being seated.

    Not quite the same thing you experienced, but another blogger’s recent experience with store personnel who also need some sort of training:

    • Thanks, Andrea! Actually, I had read the Dave Hingsburger post – he’s in my google reader, and this interaction reminded me a lot of things that he discusses. And yes, I know it is “power chair” or “scooter”. I too, thought power chair is the more modified personal one, and scooters are the more generic ones, but not being part of that community, I don’t know exactly… Either way, not terribly necessary for me to function…

  7. So sorry this happened to you, E. I have some knowledge of this problem, in a second-hand way. My mother had severe rheumatoid arthritis. At different points in her life, she used crutches or was even in a wheelchair. She especially hated that wheelchair– mostly because of the way people treated her! Waitresses would ask my Dad or whomever she was dining with, “And what will she have today?” Then, “Is she all set now?” Waitstaff, store clerks, and even medical personell routinely talked “over her” to whomever she was with; and, if they did address her directly, some times they spoke to her as if she were a small child!! This understandably infuriated my mother, who was a very intelligent and opinionated adult. She did after a while start to tell waitstaff, “I’ll just order for myself, thank you!” I am glad you have drawn some attention to this “innocent” form of social insult.

    • Thanks for the comment – yes, that sounds very frustrating. Just because you move around with wheels doesn’t mean you’re less of a person! A little while ago I was in an airport in Paris, and a middle-aged man came by with his aging mother, and she was in a wheel chair, and he talked so incredibly condiscendingly at her that I was just amazed that she didn’t smack him there on the spot. Repeating things in a baby voice, acting like she was an utter idiot, etc. And you could see her fuming underneath…

  8. Some people do that. I’ve experienced it myself and I don’t like it either; I will try to avoid that person as best I can thereafter.

    I recently heard a news that, Clinique, an American beauty products company began providing bracelets for customers who came to their cosmetics booth.
    They provide three colours. Wearing a white bracelet means, “I’m in a hurry.” Pink means, “Just looking (please don’t talk to me).” Green means “I would like expertise.”
    Apparently, 60% of customers wore the pink, “leave me alone” bracelet :).

    No one likes to be hounded upon when shopping, and I think more stores should become sensitive to the matter. So yes, an email or a letter sounds like a great idea.

    Ayano xxx.

  9. Whatever the reason for the woman’s lack of awareness and/or disrespect (even if she has her own issues), the shop should train its staff adequately; invasion of anyone’s personal space in unacceptable on any level, as is talking over the head of a disabled person.

    If I were to take a job that involved dealing with the public, I would expect (and want) to be tutored on appropriate ways of interacting in that environment. That I would also want people to be aware of my own needs (as an autistic) goes without saying, but these things work both ways. If I were unable to function without seeming rude to others (as has happened in the past), I would rather work out the back.

    I think it would be fair to mention this incident to the shop manager.

  10. It’s entirely possible the person may have had her own disabilities as well, especially given the way she talked. Still sucks it happened, but hopefully you feel better soon. ❤

    • From my experience with the grocery store and the staff in general, I think she was an English Language “Learner”, but probably not one of the (awesome) disabled staff – I know most of the disabled staff who work on my usual grocery days – we often exchange smiles and hellos, and her talking wasn’t at all anything I associate with the other adults I’ve met, but who knows. It still doesn’t matter – respect is respect, and learning to give it and get it is part of being in customer service.

  11. Reminds me of a programme on the BBC some years ago, the title of which says all, “Does he take sugar?”.

    • My god, that does sound quite frustrating. “Does he take sugar?” “Why don’t you ask him himself!”

  12. Reblogged this on Athena, Ivan, and The Integral and commented:
    Wow. There are so many things wrong in this situation. Talk about deflating! This kind of thing is what many of us autistics experience in daily life. We need to figure out how to educate people better!

    • Indeed… Though there is value in offering to help someone? But if that offer is refused, BACK OFF…

  13. That *is* obnoxious. I think I’d feel the same way about what was worse — I tend to freak out if someone is too close and I don’t know they’re there until they speak, or I bump into them, or something. Speech I’m not anticipating, in general, tends to make me jump, even if the speaker is not lurking in my shadow …

    I actually tend not to mind being talked through very much. I can see it making a difference who initiates the through-talk, though — your friend who can see that you’re not in a position to speak for yourself, and who also has a good idea of what you would want to say if you could, or a random person who has decided that you are not worth speaking to. (I sometimes do have people speak for me — or they decide to speak for me if they see I’m having trouble — and I find it helpful. But the interaction you’ve described doesn’t sound helpful at all!)

    • I don’t mind being talked through sometimes either – I have a few friends who will help me talk and/or speak for me when need be, but when I respond, and am still talked through, or I am talked through by a complete stranger who has obviously removed my personhood before beginning to talk, it’s just frustrating.

  14. Oh, and your grocery-shopping partnership with your friend sounds awesome. Forgot to mention that.

    • Yes, yes it is phenomenal – I don’t have to brave the grocery store alone, and he gets his stuff quickly and efficiently. Plus, we help each other function. My strengths (detail oriented, task oriented, amazing memory) go well with his (he can deal with people for me, but gets off task and distracted often. He quite often wanders off and leaves the cart places, or forgets what he’s getting) – he’s a physics PhD student, and despite being neurotypical, is quite amazingly awesome on many levels. He also doesn’t believe that I’m autistic, because all of my autistic traits, he just equates with “that’s ‘E'” – when I flap and perseverate and stim, that’s just me. When I fail at social, or fail at speaking that’s just par for the course in the eyes of a physics PhD student. When I spout off random facts and have the amazing memory thing, that’s just E being smart. And my sensory issues like my inability to eat a “normal” meal, or wear anything other than jeans and a fleece? That’s just what makes me, me… If only the world were like my friend… then acceptance wouldn’t be an issue at all. (Mind, when I explain all of this to him, he goes “ohhhhhhhhhhhh wait, that’s autism? I just equate that to you, as a person”. I feel like this is morphing into a blog post… but yeah, my symbiotic grocery shopping partner is amazing. 🙂

  15. Beyond insulting. My niece was with her wheelchair-bound (and Paralympics international champion) friend in a store one day, when a woman said to my niece: “Excuse me, can your friend walk?” Unlike me, my (brilliant and all around wonderful) niece is never at a loss for a response. She turned to her friend, said “Gleep-glipple-diby-doo?” Without missing a beat, the friend replied “Gumpa-vo,” and my niece said to the woman, “She says no.”

    • That is FANTASTIC! Thanks so much for sharing the story 😀

  16. Meant to add: Your discomfort with people being in your bubble is so common that it’s a wonder we don’t teach this concept in 3rd grade. “When someone backs up, don’t follow” should be right after how to answer the phone.

  17. Whatsallthis’s comment is brilliant. I’ll add I have CP and use crutches, and if I have to use the wheelchair due to leg cramps, I get ‘talked through’ too. Happens less if I’m using crutches. Maybe it has to do with being out of the line of vision?

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