The Self-checkout Problem for People With Parkinson’s

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by Jo Gambosi |

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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a shortage of staffing at many businesses, including grocery stores. These days, it seems that self-checkout lanes have become the norm. In many places, gone are the days of multiple checkout cashiers with whom customers can have a brief but pleasant chat. I feel fortunate if I see just one cashier available.

While self-checkout options may help companies with their bottom lines, I do wonder how self-assist technologies might affect people who are elderly, physically challenged, or disabled because of chronic illnesses like Parkinson’s disease (PD).

My sister Bev, 84, who has stage 3 PD, says she hates self-checkout lines.

“I just have trouble using them,” she says. “When I try to use them, I usually screw it up.”

She and others with PD commonly experience balance and gait issues, fine-motor-movement problems or tremors, and cognitive issues. And while self-checkout lanes may be frustrating for me at times when I can’t find the right product code or an item isn’t scanning correctly, I can only imagine how self-assist technology negatively affects others.

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Robert Laura authored a recent article in the online publication Next Avenue in which he refers to the self-checkout at stores as “self-checkout ageism.” He noted that self-checkouts discriminate against older adults.

“One complication is the fact that most software and device designers are young twenty-somethings who don’t realize that some older adults struggle with vision, hearing, and/or manual dexterity,” he wrote. “In other words, they get emails and texts they can’t always see, audio that may be hard to hear, buttons that are too small to push or screens that work too fast.”

For people with PD, trying to scan items in the self-checkout line can be a frustrating and even embarrassing experience.

When I visited Bev in Ohio, where she lives, we shopped at a local Walmart. Only one checkout had a cashier; all the rest were self-checkout lanes. I encouraged her, saying it would be OK since she only had a few items. It was then that I saw the struggle she had because of her PD and her age.

First, she didn’t know how to start scanning items. When she had to look up a product code for produce, I took over. It was too overwhelming for her. Bev inserted her debit card to pay, but because her hand was shaking and she was trying to balance herself on the grocery cart, she definitely had a problem. Although I was trying to let her maintain her independence, it was obvious that the experience was totally frustrating and somewhat embarrassing for her.

Dan Glass, who has PD, wrote an article about what he termed “sensory overload” and how a number of self-technologies contribute to his anxiety. He says, “Robot voices on a GPS, self-checkout lines, or a phone tree are horrific to me. Really. I’ll wait in line before I self-checkout. Besides, the grocery store isn’t paying me to work there.”

Another aspect of self-technology and aging that was examined focused on how older people view self-assist technology. In a 2008 study in Journal of Service Theory and Practice, researchers found that “compared to younger consumers, older consumers had experience with fewer types of SSTs [self-service technologies], less confidence in using SST, reported missing human interaction to a greater degree, [and] used self-checkout less often when the option was available.”

Researchers at Purdue University produced a wonderful report summarized in a free PDF about self-checkout technology and recommendations for improvements for the elderly and those with disabilities.

The transition from cashiers to self-checkouts in stores affects all of us as consumers and our interactions in stores. For people with PD or other movement or cognitive issues, and those with disabilities and the elderly, it can be an even more difficult and isolating experience.

Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, Bionews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.


Shamoon avatar


Handling Parkinson's is a tough job. My uncle who suffered with tremors got respite post stem cell therapy.He is from Iran and got treated by a therapy center in India.


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