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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 January 2007 Issue  Volume 8  Number 1

Evaluation Update

Access in the Kitchen: An Update on Home Appliances

The adage that "the more things change, the more they stay the same" is often used to describe accessibility. In the case of major household appliances, it still rules with regard to the most recent changes in the accessibility of "white goods," the industry's term for washing machines, clothes dryers, refrigerators, and other laundry room and kitchen appliances.

Over the past month, AFB TECH has surveyed a number of popular retail outlets to find out what's new in the world of accessible appliances. Here are our findings, divided into categories of appliances. We also present observations about some especially popular microwave ovens that have captured the attention of many people who are blind or have low vision.

Washing Machines

Since the publication of the last review of appliances in the May 2006 issue of AccessWorld, few changes have taken place in the accessibility of laundry room equipment. As we mentioned then, the behavior of the controls of matching models of washing machines and clothes dryers is similar. This trend continues.

Whirlpool introduced two new model lines in midsummer 2006: the front-loading Duet Sport washer and dryer and the large-capacity Cabriole and matching conventional dryer. The controls on these models, along with the well-regarded Duet washer and dryer, are easy to use by touch. All these Whirlpool models use a main rotary control with a pointer indicator that clicks into distinct positions as the control is turned. Buttons, which differ somewhat in their tactile feel, allow you to change the settings to customize the behavior of the appliance. For example, the rinse temperature can be changed from warm to cold by pressing the button the required number of times to move among the choices for rinse temperature.

Sears introduced counterparts to the Whirlpool Sport and Cabriole: the HE 2 and Oasis washer. These controls are among the least accessible that we encountered. No audibly discernable information is given as the dial is turned, nor is any tone heard when buttons are pressed. Rather than the click-stop feel of the Whirlpool models, the HE 2 and Oasis use an endlessly turning knob. In addition, Sears offers several models that have been previously highlighted for their good tactile access--the HE3 and HE4, along with several less expensive models manufactured by Frigidaire.

Several Asian brands have gained in popularity since our last report. Samsung has introduced several models, all of which use an inaccessible endlessly turning control. LG uses much the same technology. An exception is a Tronn model from LG. In this model, the main control is a unique arrangement in which you press one of five regions around a large circular control. As you press the desired cycle, a distinct tone is heard. Buttons adjust cycles, as with all other front-loading units, providing a clear tone as each option is changed.

Top-loading washers suffered from poorly designed timer dials for much of the past year. Happily, several changes appear to have been made, providing good accessibility in the traditional manner of a turn-and-pull main control. Unlike any front-loading washer or dryer, these top-loading units allow you to track the progress of the wash cycle by feeling the location of the pointer on the main control.

Sears's top-loading models, like the 700 series, priced from about $300, have a distinct dot at the pointing end of the control pointer. As you turn the control, a smooth mechanism clicks into position as each cycle is encountered. By using the pointer and counting and hearing the clicks, you can use the control independently and precisely.

Whirlpool also offers many models that use the same kind of smooth-operating turn control. Unlike the Sears models, there is no pointer, but the control has a narrow middle that can be identified as the pointer by using a piece of tape, a Hi-Mark (a raised-writing pen), or a similar tactile cue.

Maytag, which generally provides little accessibility in its product line, has several top-loading washers that use a pointer and a click-style control knob. A textured arrow is embossed in the plastic that forms the edge of the main control, allowing easy identification of the control's position.

Fisher and Paykel has replaced its model GL-11 with the similar GL-15. See the May 2006 AccessWorld article for a full description of the unique and accessible control features on this unit.

Dryers continue to fall nicely into line beside their washing machine partners in terms of accessibility. The front-loading Whirlpool dryers, as well as the accessible Sears models, provide good access to controls. The top-loading washers from Sears Whirlpool and Maytag can be partnered with matching dryers for good accessibility. The conventional dryers are the only ones that allow you to track the progress of the cycle independently by feeling the movement of the control as the cycle progresses.

In the Kitchen

While the view from the laundry room is largely the same as it was in midsummer 2006, things in the kitchen have changed a bit more. Some changes are for the better, while others sound alarm bells.

Dishwashers

Dishwashers, especially those from Sears, appear to have greater options for accessible models. A number of Sears models, which are manufactured by Whirlpool, have outstanding accessible controls. Bubble controls, which are easy to feel, are arranged logically across the top front of the door. There is a Clear/Cancel button that allows you to return the unit to a predictable state.

As in the past, Whirlpool dishwashers continue to provide outstanding accessibility across the entire spectrum of models. The bubble controls that we have come to expect as a hallmark of Whirlpool design are still with us. A Clear button allows you to reset the washer to a predictable state.

KitchenAid and Maytag each manufacturer a considerable number of dishwasher models. However, none of the machines from these two well-respected companies has a control that can be used by touch without adding your own tactile markings.

The German manufacturers and several Asian brands provide an interesting variety of controls that can be used by touch. As was mentioned in the May 2006 article, Bausch models provide several choices in the location and style of buttons. Whether on the front top surface of the door or on the top edge facing up when the unit is closed, easy-to-feel buttons abound. It is important to note, however, that many Bausch models have controls that have an On/Off state. A small LED (light-emitting diode) lights to indicate the status of the top-rack cycle, for example. Using the On/Off control will not reset the control. A light probe or similar technique can be used to verify the status of LED indicators on Bausch and other brands.

The high-end Miele line has several intriguing choices of controls. The most interesting is a central turn knob that selects the cycles. A tactile mark is used as part of the pointer indicator. The knob has a rubbery texture, except for the small hard-plastic insert along the edge of the control. This insert forms the pointer and is easy to feel. These controls are available on a number of Miele units that are priced from about $700.

The even higher-end Viking dishwashers offer easy-to-feel tactile controls, as does the top-of-the-line Sears Kenmore Elite.

The LG units are amazingly similar to the Bausch models. The complexity of controls differs widely from unit to unit. Several offer LCD status indicators and menus, while others use a more basic approach. Because dishwashers cannot be easily connected to power for demonstration purposes, it has not been possible to assess the behavior of the LG units.

If you are interested in one of the dishwashers that use a control system that you think may be accessible, we suggest that you obtain specific information on returning it before you purchase it and have it installed.

Stoves and Cooktops

The accessibility of stoves and cooktops has increasingly become a hot-button issue. Despite the pun, the ongoing consternation that is provoked by changes in controls for stoves and cooktops is justified.

More cooktops in the mid-price range have replaced knobs with touch pad technology. The trend toward knobless cooking continues. In the summer of 2006, the price of admission to the knobless stove club was in excess of $1,400 for the Sears Kenmore Elite model that we found. The price has dropped dramatically, fulfilling our prediction that this dangerous trend will continue. LG offers knobless cooking for about $800, and you can see it for yourself at Best Buy.

On a more encouraging note, all the GE and brand-mate Hotpoint stoves that we found, which have a black back panel, continue to use easy-to-feel, textured button surfaces for the oven and timer controls. The smooth screenlike control surface on these units is located in the center of the back panel. Quarter-sized textured regions are well organized and placed in a logical order. Pressing on the appropriate textured region will activate a control. Doing so results in a clearly audible beep tone and accompanying movement of the control against a button. Both gas and electric models from GE and Hotpoint are available across a wide spectrum of prices and features. Just be sure that the color of the back panel is black.

Unfortunately, the Whirlpool ranges, which had been accessible in the past, have changed. Several important controls, such as Bake and Broiler, have lost their tactile markings. The temperature Up and Down controls are still textured, but the region is small and the amount of texture is limited. We hope that Whirlpool will rethink the design and return to its earlier strategies, to make it the only company that produces accessible appliances in all categories.

Beyond the GE and Hotpoint models, a smattering of accessible controls are to be found. An upper-end Frigidaire slide in, at $1,500, was found at a Lowe's store. Some Sears Kenmore units, which may be manufactured by GE, share the characteristics of other GE stoves. See the Product Features for specific suggestions.

Wall Ovens and Drop-in Cooktops

Wall ovens and drop-in cooktops are a popular alternative to the conventional free-standing range. If you are considering a wall oven, there are several models that you may want to investigate. Kitchen ovens all provide textured control surfaces. These ovens also use a keypad, which many people find convenient for entering oven temperatures directly. Note that the amount and usability of the texture of the controls differs with the color of the oven. The texture on the controls of the stainless units felt a bit less obvious than the texture on the controls of the black, white, or bisque units.

Whirlpool continues to provide easy-to-feel textured controls on many of its wall ovens. Unlike some brands, the textured controls appear to be consistently available on models in all colors.

Frigidaire convection ovens, in stainless with a black control surface, offer textured controls. We found these models at Lowe's. Note that not all Frigidaire ovens use these controls.

At the high end, the GE Monogram double wall oven in stainless, at $4,000 from the Great Indoors, uses an intriguing set of larger rotary controls. To set the oven temperature, turn the control until you feel the first click. You are at 200 degrees. Each click increases the temperature 25 degrees. The clicks are subtle as you turn the sturdy, well-machined controls, but for those who want to include the high end in their kitchens, the GE Monogram is worth a look. No other ovens in the high-end and ultra-high-end categories were accessible. (See the product recommondations, First-Rate Choices, later in ths article.)

Microwave Ovens

Microwave ovens cross the boundaries between appliances and electronics. In fact, there is no consistency in the location of these essential cooking devices in the average store. In some places, microwaves are located with the other major appliances. At Sears, however, they are usually found with sewing machines and vacuum cleaners. You can also buy microwaves in stores that do not sell any major appliances, such as Target and Wal-Mart. Regardless of which store or which section of a store that you buy a microwave from, finding one that is usable nonvisually is a challenge.

We suggest that you consider one of four models, each of which provides at least some accessibility.

When the Panasonic 1085 was offered widely several years ago, it was a hit with those who wanted a microwave with actual buttons. Luckily, the Panasonic 1085 is back. We found it at the Great Indoors for $199. Note that it is a behemoth by today's standards, at 1.6 cubic feet. The buttons are still the familiar round and oval ones, which the previously popular model used. Round buttons form the keypad, while the oval ones select functions.

Also found at the Great Indoors is the KitchenAid model 21125-s, an elegant unit that matches the brand's major appliances. Textured rectangular buttons populate the control area. For those who do not like textured controls close to one another, this model may have a crowded control area.

Many readers of AccessWorld may have heard of the Hamilton Beach talking microwave oven. This model was offered at mass merchandisers, such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy, earlier this year. This oven has limited voice output. The controls of the Hamilton Beach use a rotary knob. Turning the knob sets numeric values, such as minutes and seconds. Other controls select cooking options, such as potato or popcorn. There are also several quick cook buttons for 1 minute, 2 minutes, and so forth. As you select a Quick Cook button or option, the oven announces the choice. In the case of Quick Cook, cooking begins immediately. For setting times or amounts, you need to turn the rotary knob. The numbers are not announced while you turn the knob. There are distinct clicks of the knob, so for those who are comfortable with clicking and counting, this unit may be a good choice.

According to the staff at AFB's Dallas Center on Vision Loss, voice guidance is especially welcome for many people who use a combination of visual and nonvisual techniques, such as senior citizens. Comments by those who use nonvisual methods every day suggest that many find the voice output useful, while others find using a direct keypad entry to be faster and more predictable.

Independent Living Aids (phone: 800-537-2118; web site: <www.independentliving.com>) will stock the Hamilton Beach talking microwave oven for as long as it can. One of the problems posed by the fast pace of change in electronics design is that when a popular or useful unit comes along, it soon disappears from stores. Independent Living Aids has made a commitment to overcome this problem, and it can provide information and support on this interesting microwave.

While the Hamilton Beach is an oven for the sighted that talks a bit, a modified microwave oven that is intended specifically to provide full voice output is also available from Independent Living Aids as "The Talking Microwave Oven." This oven replaces the controls of a standard microwave with specialized controls and a voice output system. The unit is available from some other sources that sell accessible household technology to people who are blind.

The staff at the AFB Dallas Center on Vision Loss have reported that many consumers who are blind or have low vision find the modified microwave oven interesting but confusing. The control interface is significantly different from a standard microwave and requires mastery of the concepts of the operation of the unit before you can successfully cook with it.

Searching for Documentation

Obtaining manuals and other support information before or after you purchase an appliance can be equally as daunting as finding a usable model to begin with. Several manufacturers have specific policies that provide accessible versions of manuals and, in some cases, braille or other tactile markings and labeling materials.

Whirlpool will provide, upon request, braille overlays and/or control stickers, as well as accessible manuals. However, although Whirlpool makes good on its promise, it can take several weeks before the information arrives.

Panasonic has recently committed to making manuals available for all its appliances and electronics devices. This project is a new effort for Panasonic, and to date we do not have reports on the success of the program.

First-Rate Choices

In this section, we point out devices that contain controls that may make them particularly accessible or especially inaccessible. Only you can decide if other features, quality, and price make any of the brands we suggest suitable for you. Here are some brands that, on the basis of our year-long observations, warrant serious consideration for accessibility.

Washing Machines, Front Loading

Whirlpool, all models.

Sears Kenmore, some models, especially those based on Whirlpool Duet and those manufactured by Frigidaire.

Washing Machines, Top Loading

Sears Kenmore, such as the model 700, and similar models.

Whirlpool, most models using smooth-turning mechanical main controls.

Maytag, models using a textured arrow to indicate the pointer on the dial.

Clothes Dryers, All Types

Whirlpool, all models, including those mated with front- and top-loading washing machines.

Sears Kenmore, most models, excluding those matched with HE 2 and Oasis washers.

Maytag, those matched with top-loading washers using a mechanical knob.

Stoves and Cooktops

GE and its brand mate Hotpoint, all gas, electric flattop, and electric coil burner models. The color of the back panel must be black; the models have textured controls, with beeps and a distinct button feel.

Frigidaire (Lowe's), some slide-in units use a contrasting smooth texture to indicate buttons; electric models are identified.

Sears Kenmore, a few models may use textured control surfaces, as do the GE and Hotpoint models

Wall Ovens and Drop-in Cooktops

Whirlpool, single and double units, in all colors, use textured control surfaces, beep tones are heard, and a distinct button press is felt.

KitchenAid, single and double ovens, all colors, use a somewhat textured keypad and controls, beeps are heard, but no button press feel is discernable.

GE Monogram, stainless unit evaluated, high-end model, has a solid mechanical rotary control and provides subtle but distinct click stops for 25-degree increments from 200 degrees.

Microwave Ovens, Over the Stove

Whirlpool and Whirlpool Gold, all colors, have textured control surfaces on a large, smooth background. The spacing of controls differs among the models; some are more crowded than others.

Microwave Ovens, Countertop

Panasonic model 1085, with buttons, stainless only, has clearly identifiable buttons for all functions.

Hamilton Beach, talking microwave oven, provides some voice guidance; clicking rotary knob is used to set numeric values.

Dishwashers

Whirlpool, all models, use easy-to-feel bubble controls and include a Clear/Reset button and a well-differentiated Start button.

Sears Kenmore, many models, use bubble controls, as in the Whirlpool; other models use mechanical buttons on the upper edge of the door.

Miele, a high-end brand, has a unique rotary knob in some models; the pointer is identifiable by touch.


View the Product Features as a graphic

View the Product Features as text

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Copyright © 2007 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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