Small touches make things clear
NEWTON - The shoppers descended on the produce aisle, but instead of reaching out for the fresh papayas and melons, they grazed their fingers over small labels at the bottom of the display cabinets that told them about each product.
The shoppers were blind or visually impaired, and they were at the Whole Foods in Newtonville trying out the first food labels in Braille at a supermarket on the East Coast; many said they found the experience liberating.
“It’s a sense of freedom, to be able to make your own choice,’’ said Joe Quintanilla, one of the shoppers. “Sometimes, I feel guilty having someone read me everything that is there on a label.’’
The labels are the brainchild of a blind first-grader from California, Joshua Goldenberg, who, with the help of his parents, lobbied Whole Foods to make its Thousand Oaks store the first in the country to deploy product signs in Braille.
He was in Newtonville yesterday to participate as Whole Foods brought the Braille labels to Massachusetts.
Goldenberg’s journey began with a simple question. Shopping for batteries with his mother earlier this year, 7-year-old Joshua asked her why there were not signs in Braille for him and other blind shoppers.
“We didn’t have answer,’’ the boy’s father, Evan, said yesterday.
The family reached out to Whole Foods, which responded enthusiastically to Joshua’s request.
“We wanted to do it for Josh to make a difference in his life,’’ said Ashley Eaton, a marketing supervisor for Whole Foods in Thousand Oaks.
Whole Foods launched a Braille Independence Initiative and chose the Newtonville location as its next installation because of the store’s closeness to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown and the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton.
The grocery store chain is working on the project with the National Braille Press, a nonprofit publisher of children’s books, textbooks, and tests in Braille.
Yesterday, representatives from the Perkins School and the Carroll Center tested out the Braille labels. Several said they were happy to be able to read on their own without the help of a friend or employee.
“Having things labeled will be helpful,’’ said Kim Charlson as she roamed the store’s aisles with her seeing eye-dog, Dolly, a small German shepherd. Charlson said that she often has to ask for help at the Newtonville store, where she shops weekly.
She does not, for example, know what is behind the deli counter unless she asks. And with produce, “you can touch it and feel it, but you are not always sure. Who knew there are 14 different kinds of peppers? Knowing the specifics is not something I can do right now.’’
The rectangular Braille labels are about the size of a Band-Aid strip. For now, the Newtonville store is only putting them in the produce section, and so far they provide limited information. They do not, for example, list prices or much detail beyond the name or a basic description. However some labels, such as those for leeks and spinach, will distinguish between organic and nonorganic produce.
“We are designing as we go,’’ said Terri Petrunyak, marketing and community relations leader for Whole Foods in Newtonville.
The store is working with the Perkins School and the Carroll Center to help spread the word about what is in Braille and what isn’t at the store to potential customers.
She said the chain is considering what other stores could be part of the program, but there is not a timeline yet. The company is also looking into creating a map of the store in Braille.
The Thousand Oaks Whole Foods store’s produce section features small rectangular chalkboards that include Braille labels.
Frozen foods and dairy areas also have Braille stickers on doors and cases that tell shoppers, for example, where the milk section begins and ends. Store employees’ name tags are in Braille.
Advocates for the visually impaired said the labels help give people a sense of independence.
“It’s great accessibility for the blind,’’ said Joseph Abely, president of the Carroll Center. “It allows them to lead independent lives.’’
Johnny Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.