The Fascinating Journey of How a Blind Person Shops
“Some people are really good at describing colours and patterns, whereas others are really just terrible at it.”
We are scrolling through social media, noticing a new outfit on one of our friends and coming to the conclusion that we deserve to treat ourselves with a new look too. So, we go online or in-stores and look at all those colours, patterns, cuts and fits. The fashion industry is generally a very visual world that seems to forget about fashion enthusiasts who might not be able to experience fashion visually. That being said, it is not just a matter of loving and consuming fashion despite being visually impaired. Most fashion brands give an unnecessarily hard time to blind people, let alone, making it close to impossible to enjoy an uncomplicated shopping journey. How can the fashion industry adapt to the needs of visually impaired people? What needs to change?
Ashley Nemeth was born legally blind and has lost the remainder of her sight in her early 20s. Nonetheless, she enjoys shopping both online and in-store and keeps up with trends through social media. Ashley speaks and writes about accessibility, inclusion, guide dogs, employment struggles, bullying, parenting, myths about blindness and overcoming the perception of limitations of blind and partially sighted people on her blog blindmovingon.com. She has also started vlogging about her life on her Youtube-channel ‘Blind Moving On’. We asked her about what her shopping journey looks like, how she experiences fashion and how this has changed with the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to overcome stereotypes of blind and partially sighted people in fashion and peruse fashion’s lack of inclusivity and accessibility.
Lea: Do you mind if I ask you to tell me about yourself; Why you are blind and have you always been blind?
Ashley: Yes, so I was born legally blind. So that means that I could see some things when I was born – I could see colour and shapes and shadows. But I couldn't see details or a small print or anything like that. That is from a condition called albinism, meaning lack of pigment in your eyes, skin and hair. Then as I got older I developed a secondary condition through an autoimmune disease that I have which is called ankylosing spondylitis. And one of the things that it causes is iritis, so arthritis of the eyes. Due to us not being able to control the arthritis or the inflammation of my eyes they were damaged really badly. So that's what caused me to lose the rest of my vision.
At what age did that happen?
In my early 20s.
What is your relationship to fashion? Has it changed during the different stages of your vision?
It has definitely changed. I have to rely on how other people describe things to me. And some people are really good at describing colour and patterns, whereas others are really just terrible at it. Some people just can't describe it, so I can find it really difficult to find things that I know in my head will look decent on me or that I like.
So, I really just gravitate towards neutrals and things that I know will look good together. I don't really get too fancy with patterns or colour.
How do you choose what you want to wear in the morning?
Usually, if I'm going to the office, it's just a matter of all of my bottoms being black or a dark grey or dark navy. So any top that I have in my closet will go with any pants. Even if I grab what I think is a black pair of pants but it's actually a grey pair, it doesn't really matter. So the bottoms are pretty easy but I usually use details on the different items to choose which ones I want to wear. For example, it might be a different button or a hem or a little details, like it has a tag or no tag, to pick out what I want in the morning. I really just have to focus on the top, like tops or shirts, blazers that kind of thing. Because all of my pants will go with anything in my closet.
How do you identify the colours?
I use buttons or for example, when I have a pair of pants that are exactly the same pair but one is black and one is grey, I will cut the tag out of one or I'll put a safety pin in the back, near where the tag is, to know if it's grey or black. And I have some that I use fabric paint, those that you can use to paint on t-shirts with, and it dries raised. So you can put dots in the back of your pants or tops to differentiate colours. And then it's washable, so it just stays on if you wash it.
And if you decide to get new clothes, where do you usually shop?
I try to look online first, usually. The problem with online is that the descriptions are really bad. They don't really tell you the fit or give you a whole lot of detail about a pattern. So typically I will go and look online but if I don't find what I'm looking for I'm going into the store and I have to ask someone to help me if I look for something specific.
If I'm not looking for something specific, I will go into stores and just wander the store and feel the different fabrics and the different textures and the cuts of pants and dresses. And if I like a fabric or a cut, I ask someone like: "Oh what does this top look like, what colour is it, is there a pattern?" I just try to get as much information as I can.
„The problem with online is that the descriptions are really bad.“
Would you say that shop assistances are generally helpful?
Yes, they're usually helpful but if you ask someone what colour one shirt is, two people might tell you a different colour. Some people will get really deep into it. For example, someone was telling me that it is a very blue red. But that didn't make any sense to me. I have never seen colour well enough to know what that means. In my head, it's either blue or red but they don't combine.
What would be a good description? Is it more about light and dark?
Yes, It's more about light and dark or comparing it to something that is very obvious, like the grass or the sky. But generally, it's more about it being darker red or a very bright red, those type of things.
So those aspects of colour would also be helpful for product descriptions online?
Yes, it would be really helpful. Some places don't have descriptions at all.
I prefer the webshops where they give a little more descriptions. If we are talking about a shirt and they say that it's tailored in at the waist or has a square neckline. It gives more details about the actual features of the top.
And then if it has a design, for example, I've seen somewhere it said 'floral design', but is it large floral design, is it realistic floral design, does it look like my grandma's old couch? Like what kind of floral design are we talking bout?
Do you remember a shopping situation that was very difficult in particular?
Well, stores can be difficult at times where you go in and ask for help and you say like: "I'm blind, could you help me to pick out something or could describe this to me?" And they'll say: "Oh they are just over there." and they genuinely point to them, so that's not overly helpful. But some people are really great and wanna help, but then there are some people who just don't seem to wanna help or don't know how to help, so they just avoid helping.
Would you describe yourself rather as a thoughtful or an impulsive buyer?
No, I'm pretty impulsive. I usually think I'll take it home, I'll put it on and get my kids or my husband to take some pictures of it and send them to two or three people that I trust. Then I take the average of it and decide do I wanna keep it or don't I? [laughs]
Have you made any bad fashion decision with that technique?
Yes, that is one of the downsides. I have to purchase a lot of things and try them on, take some photos and then return three-quarters of what I got. That's usually how I shop.
How's the pandemic affecting your shopping habits?
Stores are open but I can't take public transport to get there, so we are really limited to online shopping. I have been doing the same thing but online, just ordering five or six things, try them on and send back what I don't want. I'm sure stores hate that, but it's definitely in my go-to way.
Do you also follow trends and if so, how do you stay updated on that?
Yeah, oh no! Magazines are really hard to find in an accessible format but I definitely like to keep up on the trends. Well, some trends – some trends can leave. But I try to keep up with what's going on and try to be somewhat in the century in where we are at. So I use social media a lot for that. I follow a lot of fashion bloggers or fashion Instagram accounts, where people are putting together their work-week outfit ideas. I really try to use that kind of content to decide what I'm going to wear and what I'm not.
I think now that I'm older, I also somewhat know relatively which cuts look decent, what nobody says that I look terrible in. That makes it a little bit easier, but I definitely like to keep up on all of the trends and things like that, for sure.
You're saying that you're using social media a lot, but how do you understand a picture, like on Instagram for example.
On Instagram, it really depends on if you're putting in 'ALT-text', which is where you would have seen that image-description. So what happens is when you're scrolling through with a screen reader, it will read the text but a sighted person can't see that text. Or some people will put it in the description so that they don't have to do any extra steps. But if you can ever describe your photos, using ALT-text underneath, saying what's in the photo, then it's a lot easier for us to be able to use it. Screen readers, like 'voice over' on an iPhone will tell you somewhat. So it would say: "Women wearing blue, sitting on a bench" like it tries to tell you what it is but it's not always right.
There are many small steps every individual and especially fashion brands, can make to ease the fashion and media consumption for visually impaired people. Fashion brands need to work on their online descriptions, including many more details about the cut, colour, fabric and pattern of a piece. Although most online shops word their product descriptions regarding the SEO rating, it shouldn’t mean that it cannot also be written helpfully to understand the piece of clothing’s attributes.
Apart from that fashion magazines need to adapt their channel and offer their content more inclusively. Pictures can be easily described in ALT-text, and text needs to be readable with a screen reader. Alternatively, they could implement an audio option with every article. Also, every fashion enthusiast can take actions to ease the consumption of social media content. Why don’t we all include a description of our Instagram captions? It’s as easy as that.