While the iPhone 7 has some incredible engineering advances, it’s obvious Apple’s retail systems are intensely challenged by its annual upgrade cycle. In addition to its limited product availability, its website misdirected T-Mobile customers to visit Apple stores to join its upgrade program and attorneys for existing upgrade program members have filed a class action lawsuit against the company.
After showing up at an Apple store to sign up for an upgrade, staff told me I’d have to order one online and return with it. So, that’s what I did. But somehow I knew it still wouldn’t be easy. Apple and T-Mobile’s systems don’t really talk to each other as well as they do with other carriers.
In fact, my upgrade was so complicated that at one point, five blue-shirted Apple Store employees encircled me.
One was blind.
Stan and Eclaire
The Apple store was so busy when I arrived that it was hard to even find an available staff member. The first one I spoke to directed me to wait at a table where another employee introduced me to Stan.
There was something very professional about the way the employee checked in with me and with Stan about my case. Stan was new to the store and I think they wanted to make sure he felt he could handle it (and also that I was comfortable having a blind person help me.)
One of the first things that struck me walking into this narrow, mall-based Apple store was how crowded and noisy it was. Since the blind rely more than the rest of us on their hearing, I was impressed that Stan was comfortable working here.
He introduced himself (and his dog Eclaire). Despite the cacophony around us, Eclaire quietly curled up beneath our table. Even though Stan said it was okay and I wanted to pet him, I thought it was best to respect him in his role as a service dog.
I explained the challenge to Stan and he began working my case. He had headphones he’d wear at times as he used what I think was an iPhone SE in a wraparound hardware device with a scroll wheel. I could see red rectangles around list items moving about as he worked the device asking questions as we went.
While I knew it might take a bit longer for Stan to help me, it touched me that he was here — working frontline retail of a crowded noisy Apple store, home of the most successful technology company in the world.
Something warmed my heart about him (and Eclaire) and I was happy to have his help.
My Anxiety Writing About the Blind
While Stan gave me his permission to write about him, I’m a bit anxious about it.
Blind people are fully integrated into our society, right?
I’d once worked with a blind software developer at Microsoft in the 90s who was both remarkably kind and intelligent. The blind have the same capabilities of everyone else (aside from not being able to see.) Maybe there’s nothing unusual about blind retail employees. What’s my deal? Would I belittle Stan by raising him up as “special”?
But, I can’t remember having a retail interaction with a blind person before Stan. And, it turns out that the blind aren’t fully integrated into our society. The National Federation for the Blind estimates that about 70% are unemployed.
And honestly, the thought of blindness scares me more than pretty much anything. I remember one particularly sleepless night leading up to my prior year brain surgery where I realized that with the surgeon opening my skull and operating on my left optic nerve, I could go blind and I hadn’t asked her what risk I faced. Waking up repeatedly in fear of blindness was the scariest moment for me of my whole surgical and radiation experience.
My surgeon later told me she thought it was about a three percent possibility of blindness in my left eye — and I felt I could manage with that low level of risk.
But certainly, part of my fear of blindness is because I haven’t spent much time with blind people. What we don’t know often scares us.
I also have two friends who lost an eye during childhood. I’ve often wondered how they go about their lives without the comfort in the redundancy of two eyes.
Something Special is Happening Here
After a few minutes, another Apple staff member wandered up to Stan with an iPhone 7 box with my name on it.
Pretty quickly it became obvious that even the hardware engineers behind the brilliance of the iPhone 7 would be unable to sign up a T-Mobile customer for Apple’s upgrade program. Stan and Eclaire and I would need more help.
Stan called for his colleague Jay over the store’s secret service-like employee network. Jay came right away and escorted us to a table with a special iPad. Eclaire diligently followed.
The warmth and support between Jay and Stan touched me as well. Stan called Jay his adopted son and Jay put a hand on his shoulder.
Jay would navigate Apple and T-Mobile’s retail systems and Stan would point out things he missed as we went along.
Between the seventeen times Jay asked me to enter my name, email address and social security number, we all took turns making jokes. At one point, Stan told Jay he wanted to verify something and took a close look at the screen before returning it to him and saying it looked okay.
But even with Jay’s help we got stuck. And when Jay called for a manager on the wire, two other employees came over to see what was up and offer their assistance. When the manager came by, I could tell she also cared for Stan and was glad to have him on the team. Something special was happening here in this Apple store.
It was obvious that Stan can do the job well and everyone was glad to have him — but he was also being welcomed and supported to help him be successful.
The camaraderie between the staff and Stan was palpable.
At one point the manager came over and told Stan he was going on lunch break after my case. And while I’m sure she says this to a lot of employees — there was a warm respectful regard in her voice that we probably don’t regularly hear.
What Can We Learn From Stan
I asked Stan about the noise in the store and whether it was difficult to work there. He said he just stays focused and enjoys the peace and quiet at the end of the day at home with Eclaire and his other dog.
He said he’d worked at Apple for six years but had recently moved. After 25 years in one state, he said, “I needed a change.” Which ironically is how I found myself to be at his store — after 25 years, I’d recently left my home state. It’s difficult finding your way in a new city — I spent twenty minutes looking for the right bus stop downtown the other day, and I can see. I can’t imagine the courage to do this as a blind person.
With all of the pain coming to the surface recently of police violence on black men that iPhones and similar devices have helped reveal to America, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own privilege. And, for me, sight is a dear privilege. I don’t know how I’d live without it. It’s scary for me to ponder.
And, it’s Stan and Eclaire’s “everyday.”
Recently, I’d read about a young Apple accessibility engineer named Jordyn Castor. It’s hard to watch her share her story of arriving in New York city in this video without teary eyes, a warm heart and a sense of inspiration. Just watching her walk down stairs blind makes me think about her “everyday.” In it, she challenges herself to find her way in America’s most populous city. And, now she’s helping making apps that teach programming accessible to blind children.
I’ve always known Apple is proactive at accessibility — but in this moment with Stan and Eclaire and the team he was becoming a part of, I felt that the company is doing something impressive here and I’m glad to be their customer.
Similarly, I was touched by all the people who take part in raising and training dogs like Eclaire to support their humans — and to the animals themselves for their commitment.
The Timeliness of Empathy
Passing the Macy’s on the way to the mall that day was kind of evocative. A shooter had shot and killed five people at a Macy’s in Washington State the night before and was still at large. And, I’d been listening to On the Media discuss the return of white supremacy in the shadow of Donald Trump. I’d also been moved by the video of Keith Lamont Scott’s death in Charlotte. Police are killing black men regularly and laws aren’t changing to offer them equal protection. The anger and rage of all Americans right now is in a painful place.
I believe that one major component of the path forward for all of us is empathy. When you don’t reflect on what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, you don’t begin to understand the challenges before them — or the fear or the losses.
And from empathy comes compassion and mutual regard. You can see it in this particular Apple store in how Stan and his co-workers support each other.
If I heard Stan spell Eclaire’s name correctly, he’s not named after the yummy pastry but Google tells me that Eclaire is French for enlightened. His name makes more sense to me now.
Discussing the iPhone 7 last week, John Gruber quoted Steve Jobs, “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
I think Jobs would be proud to see the design of the iPhone 7 working from the inside out into this particular Apple retail store.
Postscript: I don’t want to ignore that there remain many unknowns about Apple’s overseas labor practices. Coincidentally the day I woke up to go to the Apple store, I began wondering where my clothes are made, really. While my socks are made in the USA, my shirt, pants, boxers and shoes were all made in either China or Vietnam. Still, I’d pay extra for an iPhone made here (and of course, that’s partly because I can afford to.)