RP Awareness Comes to Supermarket Chain: No Shopping Required!  

Amy Bovaird standing beside a large sheet cake she made

For two and a half years, I have worked as a cashier at Giant Eagle, the supermarket chain in my hometown, Girard, Pennsylvania. I am legally blind and hard of hearing. I have retinitis pigmentosa (RP for short), a rare progressive genetic eye condition resulting in the loss of sight. On top of that, I have progressive hearing loss. When significant hearing loss accompanies RP, it is often known as Usher syndrome.  

The Front-End Department  

Since I began working as a cashier, the Admin Leader of my store has worked closely with me — helping me succeed in my job. The job setup makes success conducive to achievement. Teamwork is built into the position. The front-end team consists of coordinators who also take turns running the customer service desk, depending on the day and time. At any given time, three to four coordinators assist the cashiers if any technical or informational problem arises. The cart attendants assist with carrying out orders, returning carts, emptying the trash, and any other tasks at the front end. There are typically three or four other cashiers working at the same time. They have scanned pop cartons when the customer’s cart is close to their register.   

At the start, Human Resources had to “sell” the job to me. “Try it. You might love it. You will be standing in one place, so mobility will not be an issue. You’ll be doing the same type of tasks. So, once you get the hang of it, you’ll become confident.” Confident? I wasn’t even certain how I would see the numbers on the register keypad.    

But it happened just as they predicted. I did fall in love with the job. And my team was superb! The confidence came little by little, and with the encouragement of my team, I felt as much a part of the work environment as everyone else.  

The Idea for an Awareness Event 

In mid-September, I approached the Sight Center of Northwest Pennsylvania, whom I had partnered with before, and talked to them about bringing awareness to the local grocery store where I worked. “Maybe we can set up a table and bring awareness to the community about the resources available here!” I enthused. “We can educate them on retinitis pigmentosa since that’s what I have, and maybe we can even set up a table for the Lion’s Club.” I had so many ideas. They listened, and our ideas multiplied.  

Once they came on board, I went to my Store Admin, and the ideas spilled out. She appreciated my enthusiasm and would “talk to a few people.” She would take it through the proper channels. A co-worker from the same chain cautioned me not to get too excited. An employee of the grocery chain for twenty-eight years, she said she had never heard of anything like that happening. Nevertheless, I continued to pray about the opportunity.  

The Store Agrees to Employee Awareness 

The Admin Leader must have supported my idea enough to persuade the management personnel in her echelon — to a degree. Management did not permit setting up tables open to the public for the different sight support groups, but we could educate employees within Giant Eagle. The Sight Center and I recorded related talks on Teams for posting on the website hub.  

I quickly adjusted to the new guidelines. “We have to start somewhere, and it makes sense we begin in the work environment,” I said to our Admin Leader. The supermarket chain spans five states — Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, and Maryland — with over 400 retail locations. It employs more than 32,000 team members (employees). I silently thanked God for providing an opportunity on a much grander scale than I ever envisioned.   

Planning Our Event 

We immediately set up a Teams meeting between the store, the Sight Center, and me. My excitement mounted as our plans solidified. We set a date for a recording in February since February is Retinitis Pigmentosa Awareness Month. We chose the 15th since it falls in the middle of the month.  

The Director of Operations at the Sight Center and I met with other staff members to plan our talks. We each would speak for 10 minutes. I thought we should keep it short since there would be four speakers. I would open the talk and share a little about myself, what RP is, how it impacts my vision (quite complex to explain), and the challenges and successes I have had as a cashier. The case manager of the Sight Center would talk about blind etiquette and list available Sight Center resources. We would finish with the Group Director Coordinator, who is blind and has a guide dog. She would talk about using her guide dog in the grocery store.   

Recording Our Talks Remotely  

A few days ago, I learned we would each be recording ourselves in separate locations. Our Admin Leader would begin at the store. I will join her there since I do not know how to make my own recording. Two members of the Sight Center will record their parts in their offices, and the final speaker will record from her home. “I think it’s really neat that we can record remotely,” I enthused to the Director of Operations… “It’s one good thing that came out of Covid.”  

The recordings will reside on “The HUB” of Giant Eagle’s employee website and will be available to all 32,000 employees.   

“Sweet” Awareness 

I designed a special cake so all employees in my local store can share in our sweet success. The store logo will be in the top center with the tagline, “We work better together” in braille. Then, we will have the braille translated to print below the braille. I plan to put some special binoculars beside the cake so employees can see what I see and a short list of facts. At the end of the month, we will have a drawing, and two employees will be randomly chosen to win a chocolate bar with a braille saying on it. “I can’t wait for that to happen!” I told our Admin Leader.  

Charitable Donation and Certificate  

I am thrilled that Giant Eagle gave the Sight Center of Northwest Pennsylvania a sizable monetary donation. Independently, the Sight Center decided to award a special certificate recognizing the forward-thinking leadership of our local store for their inclusiveness and willingness to impact the blind and low-vision community positively.  

God’s Leading 

I simply marvel at how God has directed my life. I helped an acquaintance who is legally blind apply for a position as a cart attendant in an Ohio Giant Eagle retail outlet. Then, a flyer came out looking for a hire in my area, and I applied for a position. I had no idea what job I was suited for — I never dreamed I could take on a position as a legally blind and hard-of-hearing cashier. And yet, here I am, able to educate and impact people every day by not giving up due to the challenges I face. Moreover, I have brought my passion — my advocacy — into the supermarket chain.   

Hopeful Outcomes  

I truly hope other management teams in the system see the possibilities hiring a low-vision or blind employee can bring. I hope the employee awareness training will enrich employees on both a personal and professional level. They will better understand how to assist a low vision or blind customer.  

Personal Outcome 

While I will certainly never get rich with my salary, I feel rich in gratitude and spirit. Building awareness is so important in forging understanding between sighted, blind, and low-vision individuals. We need support. But we can also positively contribute to the workforce and achieve more than the limitations others may unknowingly place on us.   

I have received recognition for my customer service two times. When our store Admin Leader asked me what I liked best about my job, it did not take me long to come up with an answer. “It’s the teamwork. And, this might sound silly, but I can’t wait to smile at each customer. Being entrusted to work directly with our guests fills me with joy. I’m proud I can do this job. I feel, even with my limitations, that I make a difference.”  

 About Amy Bovaird

Amy Bovaird, VisionAware Peer Advisor, is an author, inspirational speaker, and coach who is low vision and wears hearing aids. Visit her website at AmyBovaird.com.