Solving Problems in the Bakery as a Visually Impaired Employee

woman making dough in a bakery credit: Maranda Vandergriff @mkvandergriff

Kneading Dough and Seeking Out Baker’s Dozen

When I accepted the position at a¬†bakery,¬†I knew¬†challenges would¬†rise¬†–¬†just¬†like¬†bread!¬†¬†But the Human Resources manager assured me,¬†‚ÄúYour¬†supervisor¬†will¬†work with¬†you.‚Ä̬†¬†With a ‚Äėcan-do‚Äô attitude, I¬†figured I¬†couldn‚Äôt go wrong. Could I?¬†¬†In theory, I was not¬†afraid of rolling up my sleeves and working with my colleagues to make them aware of my difficulties.¬†But just as the bread comes already kneaded, I¬†had not developed the skills of communicating what¬†I¬†‚Äúneeded.‚Ä̬†

Getting Around the Bakery 

The bakery is a fast-paced, constantly on-the-move job for a sighted employee. Imagine what it’s like for a low-vision, hard-of-hearing worker who isn’t using a white cane. The cane was considered a safety hazard in our small space. Consequently, without my cane, I got lost inside the little bakery. I felt like I was lost in a maze.  Which aisle led out to the supermarket? Which one led to the supervisor’s desk and employee schedule? How did I get out of the bakery to the employee area?  I backtracked constantly.  

And where did each kind of bread belong on the shelf? The name tags slanted into the tab indentation, which were difficult to see. A few didn‚Äôt even have a label. Everyone but me knew where the bread was supposed to go.   

And¬†the desserts! How were they packaged, and where did they go–the breakfast¬†cookie, cake island, or refrigerated¬†case?¬†¬†Or¬†did they go¬†up the front, depending¬†on sales¬†that week?¬†My questions seemed endless. I¬†felt dependent on my¬†supervisor and other employees.¬†One day a fellow baker¬†asked,¬†‚ÄúYou know you‚Äôre in the meat department, don‚Äôt you?‚Ä̬†¬†I thought, ‚ÄúIf I knew I was in the meat department, I would not be¬†here.‚Ä̬†Somehow, I found the courage to ask the most¬†expedient¬†way¬†to return to¬†the bakery‚ÄĒsmile in check.¬†¬†

That day, I did some personal kneading.  

Accessibility Issues with Computer Videos 

On my first day, I¬†watched several¬†work-related videos. Signing in with my supervisor at my elbow was a little embarrassing. It took several attempts because the print¬†and cursor looked¬†so small.¬†¬†Accustomed to using the largest print and color contrast accessibility features in Windows 10 in my well-lit home office, I struggled to see the keyboard and monitor.¬†Also,¬†at home,¬†I have¬†a cursor with a streaming tail to find it easily, no matter where I am on the screen.¬†¬†I plodded along, answering¬†quizzes at the end of the videos. By the end of the first day, I still had another full day of video training on the computer. I could only go as fast as I could read‚ÄĒand the eye strain slowed me down.¬†¬†

The second morning I asked if we could enlarge the print and cursor. My supervisor agreed but then realized only the technicians could change those features. She said, ‚ÄúIt doesn‚Äôt matter. Work at the speed you can.‚ÄĚ  

Lap-Talk 

That day I had the computer room to myself‚ÄĒmostly. In the afternoon, my supervisor and I found a male employee seated at one of the computers. I set my purse down at ‚Äėmy‚Äô computer and lowered myself to take my seat when I heard my supervisor say, ‚ÄúNo problem, buddy, no need to move. We‚Äôll use another computer.‚ÄĚ Uh-oh. I stopped in mid-motion. I‚Äôd been about to sit on¬†another trainee‚Äôs¬†lap! Had my supervisor not said anything, I‚Äôd be cozying up to him‚ÄĒand how would I have explained¬†that?¬†¬†
Five minutes later, the trainee looked my way. ‚ÄúAre you Amy Bovaird?‚Ä̬†¬†

I eagerly told him I¬†was¬†and thought, ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs probably local‚ÄĒmay be a fan of my¬†memoirs!¬†Yes, that‚Äôs it! Had he heard me speak on the news? Maybe¬†he‚Äôs¬†seen one of my books around town. Or maybe¬†he‚Äôs¬†even come to¬†one of my book signings.¬†Oh,¬†glory be, I‚Äôm famous!‚Ä̬†¬†

Instead, he said, ‚ÄúYeah, I thought so. You‚Äôre logged into my computer, and I don‚Äôt know how to log you out.‚ÄĚ  

Ohhh. If I were a bread, I would have just fallen flat!   

The Calibration and Temperatures 

Each morning, my first task is to calibrate the temperatures of the cold storage areas with a long probe and a cellphone-sized remote unit. When my supervisor showed the remote to me, a wave of dread came over me. To complete these tasks, I had to navigate through several unreadable screens.  Fear lodged in my gut.  

The probe’s handle¬†was¬†six inches long,¬†while¬†the probe¬†was¬†another six inches.¬†My¬†supervisor shrieked, ‚ÄúHey, be careful with that¬†probe.¬†You nearly stabbed the cake decorator!‚Ä̬†¬†

To calibrate the probe to 32 degrees F, I had to wave it around a half-filled container of ice and water. When the handle flashes green, it’s calibrated. The water is dumped, and I continue the temperature checks in five different coolers. Between temperature checks, the probe is sanitized.  

My biggest problem was ensuring I found the correct screen at the right time and¬†accepted the temperature while the probe was¬†still in the testing substance‚ÄĒin the bakery or out on the floor. In the beginning, the task overwhelmed me. I tried hard to remember what I was to test in which cooler.¬†Once, I tried to test the refrigerated cake cooler¬†while¬†my probe was in the next cooler,¬†which held¬†non-refrigerated¬†cakes.¬†The probe¬†never turned green.¬†¬†

The final cooler was out on the floor. I only found it by imagining it as if it were on a clock face at two o‚Äôclock. I checked one packaged cake and made sure the vents were free of any obstruction. But‚ÄĒand I prayed this would stop happening‚ÄĒthe screen often jumped to an unfamiliar one. I had to ask for help.¬†¬†

Those first¬†few¬†weeks,¬†I¬†woke up with night sweats.¬†I checked¬†the¬†time¬†and¬†thought, ‚ÄúOnly four more hours before I have to do the calibration and temps.‚Ä̬†¬†When I walked into work, I¬†tried to think positively, ‚ÄúToday, everything will¬†go¬†smoothly.‚Ä̬†¬†

Label Maker  

The label maker is a gray screen with categories and sub-categories listed in black. There is one category to press when I want rolls. Then a new screen appears, and it opens to 20 kinds of rolls. But if I want a specific type, such as a bagel or croissant, I hit that tab, and it takes me to a breakdown of the types of bagels or croissants. Due to the small print, I need to use a magnifying glass. However, it’s still hard to read because of the lack of color contrast.   

There is also a tab for Parbakes, which takes me to a screen of partially baked bread. There is also a tab for Artisan Breads, another screen of specialty bread baked in the store.  

A lot to know and memorize. Initially, I stressed over how slow I was with my magnifying glass. 

Simply by bumping the screen, it could change. Our most popular bread is Authentic Italian. We bake between 38-42 loaves each day. After I pressed the Authentic Italian label, I added 38 loaves. At the end of all my selections, I printed the labels. Among them, 38 were Ciabatta labels!  

I had no recollection of pressing that tiny screen. The Ciabatta bread was the first label on the top left. So was the Authentic Italian, but on different screens. The screen changed on me, and I didn’t see it.  But as I became familiar with which bread was located where on the label machine, my mislabels decreased.  

The Hot Dog / Sausage Mix-up 

One¬†morning,¬†I found a tray of hot dog buns set aside for me. A note on the back of a scrap label said, ‚ÄúThese are HOT DOG¬†buns!‚Ä̬†I had mislabeled them as sausage rolls.¬†¬†

When I was told, ‚ÄúHot dog buns are longer,‚Ä̬†I could not see¬†‚Äúlonger.‚Ä̬†Both types of buns appeared blurry.¬†Long and short had no meaning. Forced to repackage the mislabeled buns, I asked my co-worker¬†for a better way to¬†tell the difference.¬†¬†

She said, ‚ÄúHot dog buns are softer and come in sets of eight. Sausage rolls feel harder and come in a row of six.‚ÄĚ That information helped me. I can feel¬†texture¬†through my gloves.¬†¬†

I started kneading for real.  

Seeking Out A Baker‚Äôs Dozen 

I‚Äôm an optimist. I love working in the bakery. But by the end of some days, I was exhausted from too many mistakes. My co-workers and supervisor seemed to forget I was visually impaired. They unconsciously held me to a sighted employee standard. I judged myself by the same standard. During a meeting where my supervisor met with the HR manager, she voiced her concerns. ‚ÄúAmy is not independent enough.‚ÄĚ  

I felt terrible about my lack of progress. I focused on what I was doing well to recapture my positive spirit and self-image.¬†Before I went to bed, I wrote down¬†‚Äúa baker‚Äôs dozen‚ÄĚ things that went well that day.¬†¬†

Baker’s Dozen Points 

  • I made a customer smile.   
  • I¬†perfectly¬†sliced that mini-Italian loaf of bread.¬†¬†¬†
  • None of the rolls fell on the floor today.  
  • I showed a cake to a customer.  
  • I found the angel food cake lids. 
  • I still have all ten fingers (after using the bread slicer).  

Sight Center Assistance  

Soon after starting my job, I called the Sight Center of Northwest Pennsylvania. I asked if there was anyone with whom I could brainstorm solutions to my challenges. They connected me to Penny Guild, a social worker.  

We talked, and she said she would come to the store to see exactly what I did. Then she could make some targeted suggestions. I looked at my work schedule, and we agreed on a date. Then I informed my supervisor and the Human Resources Manager.   

PenFriend, Bump Dots, and a White Cane 

Penny arrived on a Friday just before my second temperature check. She put on a hairnet and followed¬†me into the freezer area¬†and onto the floor while I explained my job duties. I had finally mastered the calibration and temperature checks‚ÄĒmainly through repetition. I still could not read the¬†screens,¬†but I knew which ones went where and how to¬†respond.¬†The green flash on the probe was an easy-to-see color, and I only had to accept it on the remote after each task.¬†¬†

 ‚ÄúYou did that great!‚ÄĚ she enthused. 

 Like the bread around me, my self-confidence doubled in size.  

Penny had some great suggestions. One was a PenFriend I could wear around my neck. I recorded a small label where each kind of bread should be shelved. I could touch the pen to the label, and the pen read it aloud. 

 

pen friend black with 3 yellow buttons
Penfriend

Bump dots were next to the tiny circular label to help me ‚Äėsee‚Äô it more rapidly. 

orange touch dots
Bump Dots

Desserts worked the same way, as the Penfriend read them out loud: Pumpkin Pie. Apple Pie. Berry Pie. Each kind of pie was in one stack.  

Penny stayed¬†with me¬†for an hour¬†and discussed my concerns. My optimism rose‚ÄĒjust like the bread‚ÄĒby the time she finished her assessment.¬†¬†

Letter of Assessment  

Penny sent¬†her¬†letter of¬†assessment to my employers, sharing¬†recommendations that would lead to my success. She also firmly¬†advised the bakery staff I could not be without my¬†mobility cane,¬†saying,¬†‚ÄúIt is an¬†extension of¬†Amy‚Äôs¬†finger in terms of feeling vibrations and learning where¬†she is.‚Ä̬†She suggested that I could store it in a holster on my body when I wasn’t using it.¬†¬†

Amy with White Cane

She lauded them for diversifying their workforce. Hiring the first blind/ low vision employee would help the organization to grow in sensitivity. If they thought in word pictures, that would help me further develop my job skills. Being specific would help me as well.  

In conclusion, she wrote, ‚ÄúAmy is doing¬†remarkably well and¬†only needs specific¬†instructions.¬†She‚Äôll develop more speed with¬†repetition and grow in confidence.‚Ä̬†

After the consultation and reading Penny’s assessment letter,¬†I felt¬†empowered and understood.

Conclusion 

Now¬†all my co-workers know¬†how to help me succeed. More kneading¬†will¬†happen.¬†I¬†am¬†like that artisan bread with a¬†golden¬†crust‚ÄĒbeautiful¬†and¬†unique. Yet¬†I have¬†my place on the shelves like any other bread.¬†

I don‚Äôt need a label. Everyone will know where I fit in.  


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