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The Forgotten Customers: One in Ten

Dr John Gill
August 1995

Imagine having a nightmare of being hungry and entering a supermarket where you cannot read the labels and the packages are impossible to open without some special skill you do not have. If you were visually disabled, you might think that this was not a nightmare but an everyday situation which has been carefully planned by the machiavellian grocery industry.

In the UK there are about one million people whose vision is such that they could be registered as blind or partially sighted. The total is far greater if we include those who cannot see fine print without spectacles - and this includes most people over 50. There are also those who are illiterate or dyslexic who may not be able to read the labels, as well as those with arthritis who have problems in opening packages. In all about, about one person in ten probably has problems in reading or opening packaging. It is reported that 49,000 people each year have injuries from opening packaging that necessitates going to a hospital for treatment.

The popular image of a blind person is someone in their 20s or 30s carrying a white stick, who reads Braille, is musical and is always happy. Most visual disability is acquired late in life. About 2% of the visually disabled population are under 16, 10% are between 16 and 59, and 88% are over 60 years old. This association between age and loss of vision has a number of consequences. Less than 2% of visually disabled people can read Braille, but 75% have sufficient residual vision to read a newspaper headline. Also, a significant proportion have at least one other handicap; 35% of those with a visual disability also have a hearing deficit.

Since 55% of the visually disabled population in the UK live alone, there is a need for devices and services which can assist in getting about, access to information, and daily living. However these basic needs have been largely neglected; the emphasis tending to be towards the more glamorous high technology devices.

As far as grocery labelling is concerned, there is no single optimal size and style for presenting printed information. However a compromise which would meet the needs of the majority is:

  • a minimum of 12 point print size in a simple bold typeface
  • use upper and lower case on matt opaque paper
  • if it is possible, use white or yellow characters on a dark background
  • avoid printing in pasTel: shades on a patterned background - subtlety is the enemy of legibility
  • use simple clear English

A problem for people with no useful vision is to differentiate containers which feel the same but have different contents. It could be unfortunate to confuse super-glue for one’s eye drops, or to confuse an aerosol of oven cleaner for one’s hairspray. Therefore there is now a European mandatory standard for marking containers of hazardous substances with an embossed triangle (often referred to as a "tactile danger warning"). This should alleviate the problem as long as all appropriate goods are marked in the correct place (and other goods are not marked with the warning symbol), and the end users are aware of the meaning of the symbol. The grocery industry could help by informing all their customers of the meaning of this symbol.

Openability is another problem for those with impaired vision. In particular tamper-proof seals are too often transparent, and difficult to break by those with poor manual dexterity. Even opening a packet of biscuits can be a major struggle for an elderly person; the Institute of Grocery Distribution report that 42% of the elderly people they interviewed found biscuit packets difficult or impossible to open but this reduced to 18% when there was a tear tab. This may be one of those cases where good design for people with disabilities is good design for everyone.

In an ideal world the grocery industry would consult disability organisations when planning new packaging. Consideration for the needs of customers with disabilities could create future market opportunities.


Bruce, I., McKennell, A. & Walker, E. (1991) Blind and partially sighted adults in Britain: the RNIB survey. London: HMSO.

Moore, E. J. (1995) Grocery packaging openability: an open or shut case?Watford: Institute of Grocery Distribution.


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