Not at Home on the Range
Now that our children have grown and moved out on their own, my wife and I were considering downsizing our home. While looking at various houses for sale, we paid particular attention to the kitchens. We both like to cook and believe that the kitchen is an important room in our home. After we looked at four or five new houses, we suddenly realized that the kitchens in these houses—large or small, high priced or low, well designed or poorly designed, homes we liked and ones we didn't like—all had an accessibility issue for a blind cook.
While all the accessibility advocates (numerous AccessWorld readers, including me) have been on the front lines fighting for accessibility of personal computers, the Internet, and other high-tech areas, our ability to meet a basic survival need—cooking food independently—is quietly being threatened. I'm referring to the rise in popularity of electric ranges with flat cooking surfaces and electric ovens with digital controls. After we found nothing but the flat-surface cooktops in all the houses that were for sale, we visited two local appliance retailers, Sears and Lowe's. To our amazement, we found that 95% of the electric ranges on their showroom floors had flat cooking surfaces. In fact, the only ones that didn't were low-end electric ranges with minimal features. We subsequently decided not to move, but the accessibility of cooking remains a concern. I know that even in our current home, we will need to replace our stove and oven sooner or later.
So, What's the Big Problem?
Flat-surface electric cooktops look and feel like sheets of glass. The heating element is beneath the surface. There is a circle painted on the surface to indicate where to place the pot or pan so that it is directly over the heating element. Although this circle works fine for a sighted person, it does not work if you cannot see it and thus cannot tell where to place the pan. Furthermore, if the pot or pan is moved off center during cooking, it will heat unevenly and can even discolor the cooking surface. Even if the pan is placed in the correct position using tactile measurements from the edges of the cooking surface before the heating element is turned on, repositioning it after it has slid around a little from stirring can be a problem—complicated by the fact that at that point the pan and the surface will be very hot!
Like the cooktop technology, oven technology has been advancing. Most electric ovens now have digital controls. There are several push buttons, usually touch targets on flat-membrane switch panels, for bake, broil, timed bake, and the like. The oven temperature is set using up and down buttons and a digital display to indicate the desired temperature. Accessibility to the flat-membrane switches has been addressed successfully for microwave ovens, dishwashers, and laundry appliances through the use of braille labels or overlays. The remaining accessibility issue on the digital oven controls is the use of cursor-like operations for selecting the temperature and timer.
Are There Any Alternatives?
One alternative is to abandon electricity and switch to gas cooking. It's worth noting that gas stoves have actually become more user friendly to people who are blind in recent years. The controls remain accessible, and the inclusion of electronic ignition as a standard feature essentially eliminates any uncertainty in lighting the burner. However, most of the homes in my region of the country are all-electric, so gas cooking is not an option without installing LP tanks and doing some serious remodeling.
In search of accessibility solutions for electric stoves, we started by speaking with the sales staffs at local appliance retailers. This effort yielded mixed results. At one store, the sales staff was notably unaware and unconcerned when we asked them how a person who was blind could use electric ranges with flat cooking surfaces and digitally controlled ovens. We were simply told that cooking is dangerous anyway and that I should just leave the cooking to my sighted wife. After that comment, no meaningful discussion of accessibility could take place.
The salesperson at another store could not offer a total solution, but at least he was aware of the issues. He talked knowledgeably about the braille overlays for the control buttons and genuinely understood the accessibility problems inherent in the flat cooking surfaces. He recommended that we contact the manufacturers for further assistance.
This salesperson offered a solution to the oven-control problem. With some brands, the ovens always start at the same fixed temperature when the bake control is activated. He showed us that on one model, a blind cook could press Bake, know that the oven was set to 350 degrees, and then press the Temp Up or Temp Down button once for every 25 degrees of desired change. Thus, to set the oven to 400 degrees, all one has to do is press Bake and press Temp Up twice.
Answers from the Answer Lines
I attempted to reach Sears on a national level to see if there was a product information, accessibility, or human factors department that was more knowledgeable than the in-store sales team. Any mention of accessibility questions exposed a complete lack of information. I was told anything from "There's no such department" to "All you can do is write" to a P.O. box "for information." Sears does have an appliance answer line, but there was no one with whom I could talk about ovens or kitchen appliances. I was told the best that Sears could do would be to send a technician to my house.
I had better luck with GE's answer line, on which I quickly reached someone who was knowledgeable about GE's stove and oven product lines. This woman did not have an answer for the flat cooking surfaces but explained that GE still has a few coil-top electric ranges in its product line, including models JP626 and JP328, that are relatively nice, are rich in features, and come in several colors. She also told me that GE's digital oven temperatures start at 100 degrees every time they are turned on and that there is a confirmation tone associated with pressing the Temp Up or Temp Down button, so one can be sure that it has been pressed.
Next, I phoned Amana's answer line. Amana's representative was the most knowledgeable and the most aware of accessibility of everyone I had contacted on the topic. Unfortunately, as was the case with other companies, she had no solution to the accessibility problem with flat cooking surfaces. She told me that Amana still produces one coil-top electric range, model DCF4115A. She said that it was not a base model product by any means. Again, the digital ovens were accessible. Their ovens start at the same specific temperature, depending on the model, every time they are turned on. The Temp Up or Temp Down button changes the temperature setting in five-degree increments with a tone to confirm each increment. The representative also explained that the telephone representatives just recently received a company memo about the creation of a new braille overlay department. Any customer who owns or buys an Amana product can telephone the answer line with the model number to request a braille overlay for the controls. Then, the overlay for that product is produced and sent to the customer. It appears that Amana can produce overlays for its entire product line, not just ovens and ranges.
Craving a Solution
It's been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Hunger may add some motivation, too. In spite of the admittedly limited nature of the research on accessibility solutions for flat-top cooking surfaces described in this article, I can easily envision a time not too many years in the future when flat cooking surfaces are the only alternative for those who are seeking to buy an electric stove. The fact that my telephone calls found only one or two coil-top ranges seems to indicate that this future will come sooner than we may think. If the manufacturers haven't solved the issue by then, we blind cooks are going to have to come up with our own solutions. For any readers who thought they couldn't contribute to accessibility research because they don't have the necessary skills or advanced abilities in electronics or computer programming, here's your chance to solve a real problem.
A Recipe for Success
To begin the innovation process, I came up with one idea, after consulting with a friend who is a mechanical engineer specializing in ceramics, that just might work. Start with six or eight ceramic discs about the size of small shirt buttons. Using heat-resistant adhesive, you can glue these discs evenly around the painted circle that outlines the heating element. Now, you can correctly place the pot or pan on the cook surface by centering it within these raised discs. Even if the pan slides around during cooking, it will still remain within the circle. Furthermore, if the pan was moved carefully from side to side and front to back, it could be fairly accurately centered within the designated heated area. The ceramic locator discs could be applied by the installer or by a sighted family member or friend.
More work is undoubtedly needed to move this idea from the conceptual level to production and widespread acceptance. Many obstacles may still remain, and many questions are unanswered. How big should the discs be? How high should they be? What kind of adhesive should be used? Can the discs be removed without damaging or discoloring the cooking surface? How can square griddles be accommodated? What about oversized pots that cover two elements? Nevertheless, the idea might work. It shows that accessibility solutions can be found, often through the ingenuity of those who best understand the accessibility issue—us. In fact, the user with a disability is frequently better equipped to design the accessibility solution than is the nondisabled engineer who designed the product.
Share Your Ideas
Now that we have discussed food, let's have feedback. Write to AccessWorld. Tell us about any other accessibility solutions you have used with flat cooking surfaces. Tell us what other homegrown accessibility solutions you have cooked up for household appliances. Send your responses to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will compile the replies and share them in a future issue. Meanwhile, I'm going to continue to work with my ceramic engineer buddy and try to come up with answers to the questions I raised about improving the design of the ceramic locator discs.
Amana Corporation, c/o Maytag Customer Service, 403 West 4th Street North, Newton, IA 50208; phone (Answer Line): 800-626-2000; phone (Consumer Affairs): 800-843-0304; web site: <www.amana.com>.
GE; phone (Home Appliance Answer Center): 800-626-2000; web site: <www.geappliances.com>.
Sears, National Customer Relations, 3333 Beverly Road, Hoffman Estates, IL 60179; phone (Customer Relations): 800-349-4358; web site: <www.sears.com>.
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