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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 September 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 5

Appliance Accessibility

Appliances Close Up: The Accessibility of Major Appliances for Those Using Low-Vision Techniques

For several years, AccessWorld has reported on the accessibility of major household appliances. To date, we have focused on the tactile characteristics and features of laundry room and kitchen appliances from the perspective of non-visual accessibility. With this article, and with encouragement from our readers, we begin to extend our consideration to the low-vision accessibility of major appliances.

Our work in non-visual accessibility began with some simple working hypotheses. Through our experience, and with vitally important feedback from AccessWorld readers and others, we have refined our research methods. We trust that history will repeat itself, and with your help and guidance, we will provide useful details and helpful strategies to those who are shopping for appliances.

Starting Point

Our consideration of the low-vision accessibility of washing machines, clothes dryers, ranges, dishwashers, and microwave ovens begins with a few basic assumptions. The first of these is that some appliances in each category can be identified as the best choices for those with low vision. As such, we will outline the particular technical characteristics that led us to our conclusions (see "Appliance Observations"). The second assumption is that not all of our top picks will be the best choice for every person with low vision. This recognizes that, unlike non-visual accessibility, the physical characteristics of individuals with low vision will be substantially more varied. Lastly, we want to be clear that our understanding of the practical impact of these basic assumptions is still in its early stages. We are therefore asking for your input and seek your engagement as we move forward. We invite you to use the quick reader feedback link to do so.

Our Criteria

Based on AFB TECH's experience in technology evaluation, we created a set of evaluation criteria for those with low vision. Version 1.0 of our list includes the basics: font size, color contrast, etc. We also considered some variables unique to each class of appliance, such as the location of controls on the door of a dishwasher. Special considerations for a class of appliance are listed with the category. Model-specific characteristics are offered in the "Notes" section.

Font Size

We measure font size using a standardized transparency overlay created with Microsoft Word. In many cases, 12-point font is considered "standard-size" print. The United States Postal Service and some other governmental agencies consider 14-point font to be "large print." However, the American Printing House for the Blind suggests, and work in the AFB TECH lab has shown, a minimum of 18-point font to be more appropriate for people with low vision. Unless otherwise stated, font sizes are those used across most or all of an appliance's text labeling.

Font Characteristics

We reference font characteristics if the font style is particularly helpful or if some font styles create specific issues in an otherwise useful display.

Contrast

We report observable contrast of label text color against a background color. Unless otherwise stated, the contrast measurement is for all elements of the device.

Layout and Organization

This rather broad category includes observations that report the effect of the organization of text and other elements. "Cluttering" and "outlined elements" are typical of items represented in this category.

Tactile Accessibility

This represents a summary of the general accessibility of appliance controls by touch. We include it as a supplemental point, but we do not use it when ranking specific models.

Regions and Controls

This is a breakout of the appliance-specific visual elements that we consider. A set of observations has been created for each class of appliance. For example, a range will include "burner control," "oven control," and "cooking surface" observations.

Appliance Observations

For the first version of this index, we visited the Best Buy and Sears appliance departments. These retailers have locations nationwide and present a relatively good selection of mid-range major appliances. In addition, Sears is the only source for the Kenmore line, the most popular appliance brand in the United States.

Ranges

The majority of ranges use one of only a few control panel designs--typically, white with black lettering or black with white or light-gray lettering. On most ranges, a rectangular, recessed, screen-like panel houses the oven controls. One turns the knobs to either side to operate burners. More costly units substitute a rectangular, glassy back panel for the metal and recessed screen of more basic offerings. On the high end, the trend is to use touch controls for all functions, including burner settings.

Gas stoves typically position burner controls on the front of the range, above the oven door. Oven controls for gas ranges share the same characteristics as their electric siblings.

Colors and contrast in ranges tend not to extend beyond black, white, and stainless. We did not observe any brand-wide trends that would allow us to suggest a single brand as either a first choice or one to be avoided.

Make and model: Samsung FE-R300SP (black, electric, smooth top)
Price: $599.99
Burner controls: 18-point font; nine increments from high to low
Contrast: White on black with a red pointer; tactile markings.
Cook surface: Gray rings on black background
Oven controls: 28-point font for number pad
Function controls: 16-point font
Contrast: White on black
Notes: Moderate number of functions on recessed oven-control area. Well organized. Plastic screen over controls may create glare.

Make and model: Whirlpool WFE301LVS (black, electric, smooth top)
Price: $549.99
Burner controls: 12-point font
Contrast: White on black, with a white pointer; continuous circle increasing in thickness from low to high, counterclockwise.
Oven controls: 12-point font
Contrast: White on matte black
Cook surface dark: Gray rings on black background
Notes: Oven controls, while small, contrast well against the matte background. More features than other models and well arranged. Has some tactile accessibility of oven controls.

Make and model: Sears Kenmore 61032 (white, electric, smooth top)
Price: $407.99
Burner controls: 12-point font
Contrast: Black on white; pointer is black with a tactile marking. Continuous circle increasing in thickness from low to high, counterclockwise.
Oven controls: 14-point font
Contrast: Black on white with icons (gray on white)
Cook surface: Gray rings on a black background
Notes: Icons indicating function (bake, broiler, etc.) may be particularly useful for some. White with black lettering may be useful.

Dishwashers

Much like the ranges and refrigerators with which they share kitchen duty, dishwashers are limited in their selection of colors. Controls reflect this and are almost always comprise black, white, and stainless elements. Controls can be positioned in one of two locations. On-the-door controls are traditional and can be viewed on the front of the door when the door is closed. Concealed controls occupy the top edge of the door. These controls can only be viewed when the unit door is open. Because of the ability to position the door as it opens to the best viewing angle, machines with concealed controls may be a good first choice.

Make and model: Frigidaire BGHD2433KF (stainless, concealed controls)
Price: $539.99
Font: 14 point
Contrast: White on black. Each of 14 functions is associated with a distinctive white dot.
Notes: Stainless-steel exterior with plastic "tall" tub. Controls have a reflective plastic covering that may cause glare.

Make and model: Bosch SHE4AP06UC (black, front-mounted controls)
Price: $449.99
Font: 16 point
Contrast: White on black. Ten functions in two rows, each associated with an LED indicator.
Notes: Buttons are black on black with good tactile characteristics. Two buttons move across a row of cycle options, as indicated by an LED light as each option is selected. An option is canceled by pressing "start" for 3 seconds.

Microwave Ovens

AccessWorld receives more comments regarding the accessibility of microwaves than any other appliance category. Microwaves fall into two design groups, countertop and over-the-stove. As with other kitchen appliances, colors used in microwave design include black, white, and stainless. For over-the-stove models, the position of the controls is dictated by the location of the microwave above the stove. This provides an opportunity to light the work area sufficiently. We also note that the control panels for this class of microwave are generally larger than those of countertop models. Both of the models reviewed for this article are over-the-stove microwaves.

As a group, we did not observe any brand consistency. The number of features offered appeared to influence the cluttering of some control panels.

Make and model: Frigidaire Gallery FGMV173KW (white)
Price: $299.99
Font: 10 point
Contrast: Black on white, green, and orange
Notes: Despite the 10-point font size, letters and numbers were judged to be easier-than-expected to read. Functions are well organized with a green marker on the "start" button and an orange marker on the "clear" button.

Make and model: LG Goldstar MV1608WW (white)
Price: $169.99
Font: 14 point
Contrast: Black on white
Notes: Relatively basic unit with fewer features than some. Control labels are well organized and uncluttered.

Laundry

Walking along the rows of laundry appliances is not unlike visiting a new car showroom, at least in terms of the variety of colors from which one may choose. Beyond basic white, fire engine red, royal blue, metallic aqua, and champagne were all on display in just one of the stores we visited. The result of this colorful laundry experience may be substantially poorer contrast and more limited options for many customers for whom low-vision access is important. Contrast was judged to be significantly poorer for most "colorful" laundry appliances than for the more traditional white, which offers black printed text.

In addition to color, the complexity of controls and their print labels contributes to more cluttering than on any other major appliance class. For example, we encountered several mid-range LG washers and dryers with more than 35 separate controls or indicators and corresponding print labels.

Laundry equipment controls fall into three broad types. The most common combine printed labels or legends with small LED lights that indicate when a particular feature or cycle is active. Often, but not always, these LED lights are accompanied with a larger LED countdown indicator or an LCD display. Less common are the physical pointers or knobs that indicate choices printed on a background panel. These controls, which were once the norm, are now found on only a few low-end machines. At the high end, full-color displays have recently been introduced. The top-of-the line Sears Kenmore Elite combines this kind of display with a large rotary control and just two physical buttons. We have not evaluated this washer/dryer.

Of all the appliance categories, we believe laundry equipment may pose the greatest challenges for those with low vision. Across all models tested, the control characteristics for washers and dryers were identical. For this reason, our observations pertain to both halves of a branded washer/dryer pair.

Make and model: Sears Kenmore washer 49032, dryer 89032 (white)
Price: $645 each
Similar model: Washer 40272, dryer 80272 (white)
Price: $781 each
Font: 14 point for both "cycle" and "options" labels
Contrast: Black on white for both "cycle" and "options" labels
Notes: Relatively complex controls with somewhat crowded labeling. Cycles surround a main control with LED pointer. Cycle options are arranged in three columns with LED indicators that light up next to each selected option. The more expensive "272" units have more functions, increasing the number of controls and labels, yet are still judged to be well organized.

Make and model: Frigidaire washer 37052 (white)
Price: $629 (washer), $696 (dryer)
Font: 14 point for both "cycle" and "options" labels
Contrast: Black on white for both "cycle" and "options" labels
Notes: Relatively complex controls with somewhat crowded labeling. Cycles and options are arranged in a column with LED indicators that light up next to each selected cycle or option.

Conclusions and Next Steps

These observations are a first attempt to review the elements that contribute to good low-vision accessibility when applied to major appliances. This report is just one component of the efforts currently underway in the AFB TECH labs. We are also developing methods to standardize the measurement and description of the small-screen visual displays found on so many of today's electronics, including home appliances.

Quick Reader Feedback

We invite you to tell us about your perspectives and experiences, as well as the techniques you employ to operate appliances using low vision. Please complete this short online survey to give us your feedback.

Research assistance for this article was provided by Joe Regnier.

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Copyright © 2010 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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