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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 September 2008 Issue  Volume 9  Number 5

Access Issues

Gone Shopping: An Update on the Accessibility of Kitchen Appliances

AFB TECH returned to the appliance departments of the big-box stores in midsummer and evaluated the controls on the current crop of major appliances. I can report that the picture is a bit brighter than it was in earlier visits. Several categories of appliances, including both wall ovens and free-standing ranges, were virtually unusable at the time of my previous visit. I was pleased to observe that at least three manufacturers have included some manageable controls in the current models of wall ovens. The most promising of these controls are found on some GE ovens, which I found at Home Depot, Lowe's, and Best Buy. These controls resemble the bubble-style controls on Whirlpool dishwashers. They behave well, allowing you to set not only the oven temperature, but the oven timer, by hours and minutes, independently.

At the same time, Frigidaire, Professional Series, and some Whirlpool wall ovens offer tactile textured regions on the surfaces of controls that make nonvisual use much easier than did the earlier, all-smooth, controls. The Frigidaire controls are found on a range of models at several price levels. Some include direct key entry of the temperature, using 10 numbered controls, while others offer an up-down control. In both the GE and Frigidaire ovens, the default temperature is 350 degrees for the Bake setting, with 5-degree changes when using the up-and-down controls.

Dishwashers, which had become far less usable over the past year, appear to be trending toward renewed usability. KitchenAid, which had usable controls only a few years ago, replaced those controls with smooth touch strips in more recent designs. I am pleased to report that it has once again included usable textured controls on many of its machines. KitchenAid offers both on-the-door and hidden controls in several models that are priced from about $600 to more than $1,200. While all the models do not include the textured controls, many do.

Sears offers an almost bewildering array of dishwashers in its retail locations. In addition to the usable KitchenAid and Whirlpool machines, many Kenmore and Kenmore Elite dishwashers are usable. Since many of these machines are manufactured by Whirlpool, the similarity in the controls is not surprising.

Stoves

Stoves remain the glaringly inaccessible gap in accessible appliances. I found that GE ranges, which included textured controls only a year or so ago, now use totally smooth oven control surfaces. This is also the case with Frigidaire, Maytag, Bausch, Sears Kenmore, and Whirlpool. I did encounter a Frigidaire slide-in range that features tactilely identifiable controls of contrasting textures and a Whirlpool slide-in range that uses textured regions on a smooth background. The Whirlpool model was discontinued, however.

Unfortunately, KitchenAid wall ovens, which used to include a somewhat usable keypad and subtly textured controls, have jumped on the "totally smooth control" bandwagon. I also note the passing of the once-accessible Panasonic microwave oven. At this time, I am not aware of any usable microwave ovens that are available in retail outlets. Independent Living Aids confirmed that the Hamilton Beach talking microwave oven is still available, however.

Washing Machines and Dryers

The controls on washing machines have changed little in the past 12 months. I confirmed that Bausch models, in the 500 series and, I believe, in the 100 series, do not beep or offer any audible feedback when the control buttons are pressed, which is necessary to change cycles.

Whirlpool's full-size Duet models still offer the highest level of nonvisual usability of any washing machine or dryer. The unique and innovative system of descending tones to indicate the choices of cycles puts Whirlpool's laundry-room design at the head of the line.

The trend of separating frontloading washers into size categories continues. The most accessible washer-dryer offerings are in the largest size category.

A number of manufacturers offer washers and dryers that can be used with a "count and press" method, which means that when the appliance is turned on, the controls default to a predictable state or setting. By turning controls and listening to beeps and counting button presses and listening to beeps, it is possible to change cycles and settings. This method is not suitable for everyone, but is possible over a large range of brands and models, including GE, Samsung, LG, Frigidaire, and Maytag.

Top contenders in the traditional top-loading washer category include Maytag, GE, and Whirlpool. Their matching dryers offer traditional accessibility as well. The Fisher and Paykel top-loading, high-efficiency washer, GLE-15, is an amazingly usable machine and offers what is perhaps the most usable nonvisual appliance control that is currently available.

Since not all sales associates are equally knowledgeable, it is worth noting that among the associates whom I talked with while conducting this survey, those who were trained by Whirlpool regional representatives all knew about the tone controls on the Whirlpool laundry equipment. They included those at two Best Buy stores and two at Lowe's stores. As I noted in the past, our experience at Sears was the most consistent. Of the six associates I talked with, five clearly grasped the concepts that were important. Similarly, the four at Best Buy were engaged and able to offer informed observations once I explained the concepts. Since the Lowe's representatives know the AFB TECH staff, an accurate assessment is not possible. Unfortunately, Home Depot and the Great Indoors are at the bottom of the pack again. We visited a Home Depot and the Great Indoors, spending at least half an hour examining dozens of appliances. Despite the amount of time we spent in these departments, we were never approached by a sales associate offering assistance.

The bottom line in mid-2008 is somewhat brighter than earlier in the year. With the exception of free-standing ranges, there are at least two usable choices in each of the major appliance categories.

Introducing the AccessWorld Appliance Accessibility Guide

Technology moves forward at an increasing pace, or so the technology prognosticators, pundits, and proponents observe. If the appliance industry is any example, then their predictions of ever-faster changes in technology, and in our lives, are certainly true. For this reason, tracking the availability of today's appliances through traditional AccessWorld articles is difficult at best. We also realize that information that describes the features of yesterday's appliances is of no assistance if the appliances are not available today.

For all these reasons, and to direct you to the most current information about this continuingly important topic, we are pleased to introduce you to the AccessWorld Appliance Accessibility Guide (www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=4&TopicID=380), which is designed to accomplish three important objectives.

The first objective is to bring together, in a clear and consistent layout, our current understanding of the accessibility of major household appliances. We offer an introductory section with important information about purchasing an accessible appliance, as well as a description of some basic concepts that AFB TECH research indicates are important.

The second objective is to offer a category-by-category focused breakout for the major appliance groups, including stoves, dishwashers, washers, and dryers. In these category-specific sections, you will learn about the important characteristics of the appliances and read an overview of the appliances' current accessibility.

The third objective is to build an index of specific brands and models of appliances that the staff of AFB TECH believes are worthy of particular consideration. This index is new and will grow with time. It will also reflect the ever-changing nature of the accessibility beast as out-of-stock models are removed.

Using the Brand and Models Usability Index

The purpose of the index is to call to your attention models of appliances that may offer controls that are more usable than those of other brands and models of appliances in the same category. It is important to note that the most accessible stove may not be as usable as the most accessible washing machine, so comparisons of usability are relative to the category.

We are refining the index and appreciate your feedback. Please keep in mind that each individual has certain techniques to accommodate his or her nonvisual or low vision use of appliances. Earlier articles in AccessWorld described some of these techniques and highlighted our research findings.

New and Usable, Summer 2008

Wall Ovens

GE model JTP70sMSS convection oven, at $1,399, and GE Model JKP30BMBB standard oven, at $949 (note that other models with similar controls are available in a range of colors and with different features), have bubble controls, some with direct-entry keys, others with up-down controls. The more elaborate models have round and oval controls and separate temperature, hour, and minute controls. Beeps confirm the Bake setting (the default temperature is 350 degrees) and Start. No beeps sound when you move the temperature up and down, but there is tactile feedback as each button press moves 5 degrees.

Frigidaire Professional Series, $850-$1,500, includes model PLEB3059FCB. This model has textured controls on a smooth background with confirmation tones for each button press. The error tone is clearly different from the other tones. Both direct-entry with 10 keys and up-down choices are available. There is no sensation of the movement of the mechanical buttons as the controls are used.

Dishwashers

LG models, including LG CDF6920ST, at $799, have hidden controls, on the top surface of the door, facing up when the machines are closed. They have easy-to-feel buttons and several door and button styles. A Cancel feature is activated when you press two adjacent buttons: Power and Normal, for example.

KitchenAid models, including Model 17902, at $649, have textured controls in several configurations that resemble the traditional Whirlpool models. A Cancel button is included on several machines.

Kenmore Elite, Model 8542578, at $874.93, has rough background features that contrast smooth, circular control surfaces and a mechanical surface that is behind a plastic membrane. Other Kenmore models have a wide variety of designs and include both usable and inaccessible machines.

Looking to the Future

Looking to the future, we plan to create an AccessWorld reader opinion tool that will allow you to share your thoughts and experiences about the accessibility of appliances, tentatively called "Awpinions." We will keep you informed as its development progresses.

On the broader stage of the development of appliances, communication between appliances and other systems and/or among appliances in the home continues to be discussed. To date, manufacturers have been reluctant to include technology that makes it easier to purchase an appliance from another brand. At the same time, the prevalence of computerized technology would appear to make the day when all brands will be able to communicate a question of "when," not "if."

The interest that GE has given to the sale of its appliance unit also holds significance for nonvisual access. If the brand, historically one of the least accessible, is purchased by developers who value technology and rapid engineering over usability, then there is little hope that the accessibility of GE's offerings will increase. If the opposite is true, however, then the trends we have noted for this round of assessments may continue in our favor.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail us at accessworld@afb.net.

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Copyright © 2008 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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