By Melissa Lomax
The fact that I enjoy navigating malls as a blind person is not amazing—it's pretty normal. Instead of being afraid of these massive buildings, I have developed methods to navigate that help me when my vision is at its best (which is really not good at all), or when my vision is at its worst and practically useless. I can go to any mall in any state with just my white cane and smartphone and be just fine. I know that many people, including ones who are blind, love shopping with others they know—I just happen not to be one of these people.
So, here’s how I do it!
Step 1: I explore the online mall directory before going shopping
The directory will either tell me what level the store is on, or it will give the floor and the closest proximity to one of the anchor stores. I first look for stores I’d like to visit in advance to see if any are close to each other and take note of the nearby anchor store or the floor.
Step 2: I learn the anchor stores at the mall
Even if the stores I want are only near two anchor stores, I then research all of them in the mall so I can understand where I am at any time. Anchor stores are in corners, usually at the very end of corridors; I know that if the mall map says that a store is close to an anchor store, I can guess that it is either in the same hallway or right outside of it. I can also already guess that if I get near an anchor store on the first floor, but the store I want is nearby on the second floor, I could search for a way to get upstairs either in the hallway or inside of the anchor store so that I don’t lose my bearings. When thinking about finding ways to get to different levels, I know that stairs are usually located in the middle of hallways, either as an opening around a circle or in the middle of the floor. Elevators can either be in the middle of the hallway or tucked away so I prefer finding one in an anchor store if I need it since those are most often on the perimeter of the store. Escalators are also the easiest to find because they can easily be heard from far away. Fun fact: escalators are usually located near the main outside entrance of department stores or in the main circle right outside of an anchor store hallway. If the mall is super huge, I make sure to find out which store is closest to an escalator so I can find it again.
Step 3: Go explore!
If my eyes are not irritating me, I can easily search for any store with a logo that I can clearly read such as: FYE, Forever 21, Victoria’s Secret, or H&M. Most of the time, I use the camera on my phone to zoom in to the tops of stores to find even more names. I don’t have to worry about watching my step because I am using my cane properly at the same time. For the days when my vision is not as good or when I’m not feeling social, I will walk very closely to store entrances until I find one that I want to enter. For me, that means a smaller store because I know it may be emptier and the people working there will easily notice me. I can tell how big or small a store is based on the size of its entrance and the sound I hear coming from inside. When I get someone’s attention, I start by asking the name of the store I am in. For the days when I don’t feel like talking, landmarks are my best friend. If I find a food stand, Starbucks, a restaurant, a sneaker store, or another location that has a very distinctive smell, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot. Finding one of these landmarks means that I’ll easily remember the hallway and know that if I get confused while traveling, I can make my way back to said familiar area. It’s even better when malls have water fountains or other large attractions like carousels in their main hallways because it acts as a beacon for me to regroup.
Step 4: I use the knowledge of the store I found to my advantage.
I look at the mall directory to see which anchor store is closest to me. If I am in the right hallway, I’ll either walk around the entire hallway until I find the store I want using all my senses, or I’ll ask a store employee for directions to my destination. If I am not in the hallway I need to be, I may ask someone for directions to the anchor store closest to where I need to go since they would most likely know the name of the anchor store over small stores. I may choose to just leave that hallway and find a new one to start exploring. Either way, I’m also memorizing the stores as they relate to anchor stores so I have a better understanding of the layout of the mall.
Step 5: Shop!
When I get into a store I like, I find the register first. It’s easy to hear the beeping or the sound of hangers and bags. I ask for a shopping assistant or a store associate to help me find items of interest. I especially love it if this person is super knowledgeable about the products in the store because they’ll show me items that my friends or family may miss. Having someone who knows the store makes shopping go by much faster. And, if I need to try on clothing, I simply Facetime my friends or send pictures so I get the best of both worlds—my independence and my friends’ support!
It's that easy, and for me that makes it more exhilarating! Each store I find is a small win that I celebrate, and each time I am confused navigating my way around the mail is a chance to create new landmarks. These skills take time to develop and execute, which is why I clear an entire day every time I need to go shopping!
Melissa Lomax, youth program manager, disability advocate, and lifelong mentor.