July 2009 Issue  Volume 10  Number 4

Access Issues

Good News on the Home Front: An Update on the Accessibility of Appliances

Reading the newspaper and listening to the radio in these difficult economic times have convinced me that there is an index to measure almost every imaginable business trend and consumer behavior. Whether it is housing starts, existing home sales, consumer confidence, or anything else to be measured, surveyed, or analyzed, there is a regular report to be found. Despite the vastly different things under consideration, one thing appears to be common for all: Most of the indices appear to be trending down.

At the risk of appearing unimaginative or stooping to a "me-too" approach, I would like to suggest a new index. This one is far less scientific than many. It is not associated with an internationally recognized school of economics or likely to reach the business section of the Wall Street Journal or the International Herald Tribune. However, for those of us who are affected by this index, the results of what it measures are of real significance.

Here, I introduce the Appliance Accessibility Index, or AAI, AFB TECH's own measure of one small, but important, trend in the lives of many of us who are blind or have low vision. This index takes into account the general state of the accessibility of major home appliances that most of us are likely to encounter when we rent apartments, purchase houses, remodel kitchens, or have any of countless reasons to shop the aisles of an appliance store or big-box emporium.

We have been covering the accessibility of appliances at AccessWorld for some years now. To measure trends on the AAI, we need to look back just a bit. The trend from our first article to our last was generally downward on the AAI. Stoves were a particularly worrisome component of the consideration, since almost all accessible oven controls vanished in 2008.

Since the last article, we have visited the big-box retailers and smaller appliance outlets again. And after looking at the controls, pressing the buttons, and turning the knobs, we can report some good news. We are pleased to let you know that more appliances are accessible now than they were in the past several months and last year. Yes, despite much bad news, we are pleased to report that the AAI is trending up.

Here are the specific areas in which we have encountered new and enhanced accessibility.

Whirlpool Stoves

Whirlpool has been one of those companies that keeps faith with customers who are blind or have low vision. From time to time, models are introduced that do not do such a good job of providing usable nonvisual accessibility. This was the case with stoves from Whirlpool in summer and fall 2008. We are pleased to report that, once again, both gas and electric stoves, in both the inexpensive and more deluxe categories, offer tactilely identifiable controls for the oven and timer operations of the ranges.

In the less expensive line, models whose model numbers begin with WF all appear to share a textured background with smooth quarter-size regions to press for control functions. Ovens turn on at 350 degrees, and the temperature is adjusted in 5-degree steps as you press the arrow-shaped Up and Down controls.

Models whose model numbers begin with GF are more deluxe ranges. A smooth control surface features smaller but discernable textured controls. Again, the oven-setting behavior is the same as with Whirlpool stoves.

In both cases, we recommend that you confirm the behavior of the model you are considering in the store before you purchase it. We suggest that you do so by connecting a gas model of a range with the kind of controls you are considering. This is easy to do, since the controls need only a conventional electric outlet to be connected. Electric ranges, in our experience, have the same controls as their gas counterparts.

With the renewed accessibility of these stove controls, Whirlpool returns to its unique position as the only manufacturer that provides good or excellent nonvisual accessibility across all categories of major appliances. When combined with broad availability, we believe that Whirlpool should be the first-choice brand in matters of nonvisual and low vision accessibility.

Maytag Bravas Washers and Dryers

More than a year ago, the accessibility of the laundry room increased when Whirlpool introduced Duet front-loading washers and dryers that include a system of different tones to indicate cycles and other selections. We are pleased to report that Maytag has also introduced the same, or a remarkably similar, system in its top-loading Bravas washing machines and dryers. The controls of the Maytag models are also satisfactory. A large main control knob clicks nicely into position for selecting cycles and features an easy-to-feel pointer. Obvious rectangular selection buttons complete the control panel. These buttons are not only easy to feel, but may offer a convenient surface on which to attach braille or large-print labels.

As with the Whirlpool Duet models, the controls for the Maytag Bravas dryers mirror those of their washing-machine mates. With the introduction of these Maytag models, both front loading and top loading, accessible, energy-efficient washing machines and clothes dryers are available.

Window Air Conditioners

If my experience is an example, purchasing a window air conditioner can be a hasty event. Prompted by a midsummer heat wave and the failure of an old unit, a quick shout to a friend resulted in a drive to the closest big-box store to pick up a replacement in time to get it back home and in the window before bedtime. With a bit of advanced planning, some accessible and usable window air conditioners can be found.

If you haven't looked at the current crop of window units, you will note that, as with most other appliance controls, electronic controls have replaced the sliders and knobs of yesterday's air conditioners. Happily, many of these electronic controls are easy to use and offer predictable behavior. First, it is important to understand that even some basic 5,000 BTU units offer a true thermostat control. As with oven controls, pressing the Up and Down buttons will move the temperature by one-degree increments.

With this knowledge in mind, you may want to investigate models from Sears Kenmore and GE, although other brands offer similar controls. Look for controls on the unit that you can feel or easily mark with braille or some other tactile marking. Check with the sales associate that the temperature selection is changing up and down in a way that is predictable. Some controls may click or provide another kind of indication that you are moving the temperature selection. Also, find out if the temperature can be reset. If no Reset control is included, experiment with a display unit by unplugging it, leaving it disconnected for several moments, and then reconnecting it to the wall outlet. In many models, the temperature will reset to a predictable temperature each time the unit is disconnected from power. This feature is important for those instances when you lose track setting the temperature and want to return to a known value to start over.

Remote controls are also common. In some models, an easy-to-feel Up and Down arrow clearly indicates the direction of temperature adjustments. Each press of the remote will be confirmed with a beep or other tone from the air conditioner. Again, this behavior is not universal, but our research and consultation with knowledgeable sales associates give us confidence that these kinds of controls can be found on a variety of brands at the major retail outlets.

Accessibility Remains Available

Over the past several articles, and in our AccessWorld Appliance Accessibility Guide, [ www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=4&TopicID=380 we have identified a number of washing machines and dryers, wall ovens, dishwashers, and over-the-stove microwaves that offer especially useful controls. We were pleased to observe that all these controls remain in production on currently available appliances. There is always a chance that a brand and model that you are especially interested in may be discontinued. If you are planning to purchase an appliance, it is advisable to confirm the availability of your choice at the time you intend to buy it.

Despite the generally slow economic situation, at least as measured by all the surveys and indexes that we have read and heard about, the accessibility of appliances has increased.

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

Previous Article | Next Article | Table of Contents

Copyright © 2009 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.