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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

What You Need to Know Before You Buy

The Shopping Experience

Against the backdrop of larger and larger organizations controlling more and more of the distribution of appliances, what is the state of knowledge in areas that are of the most importance to consumers who require information about accessibility? Although specific data have not yet been collected to measure the knowledge of sales personnel, several trends remain consistent as AFB TECH surveys appliance accessibility.

Price doesn't always predict sales knowledge.

The Great Indoors is on our list of retail outlets which we monitor. It is a higher-end establishment which offers many oven-cooktop combos in the over-$5,000 price range. Given this status, there is a certain expectation of customer service and knowledgeable sales staff. When visiting, we frequently find that the availability of help and the overall knowledge of the sales staff are surprisingly lacking.

Sears is the nation's largest retailer of major appliances. We consistently find that Sears sales associates are generally able to provide at least minimum, appropriate assistance. They often grasp the issues and concepts of accessibility and can be excellent resources. Those who do not understand the specifics at least generally listen carefully and answer basic questions appropriately.

Lowe's is the nation's largest retailer of Whirlpool appliances. As with Sears, most of the sales staff provide good information and are helpful most of the time.

Independent appliance stores provide a very hot or very cold set of experiences. In some, help is impossible to find, and after you find it, you may wish you had not. Still other salespersons were so excellent that we found ourselves having to resist purchasing a second washing machine.

Strategies for Shopping

Plan your attack. By organizing your shopping, you will be able to ask the questions you need to ask in a consistent way.

Let your fingers do the walking—call ahead, ask questions, and make note of whom you talk with and your impression of the person. If it is a big store, with a brand that you are especially interested in, call several times, and when you get a salesperson whom you like, establish a time to shop when you know he or she will be available.

Take notes and record your observations. Some careful thought to a set of criteria which are important and a set of questions to ask about each appliance you are considering can help you collect a very detailed picture of your choices when you have finished shopping.

Speak up if things don't go well. Do not be afraid to express your discomfort or concern when you encounter poor service. A direct statement, such as "This isn't going well; you seem to be uncomfortable with my blindness. I would like to talk with someone else" may work to move things along if you picked the short straw on the sales floor.

Understand return policies. Find out what the return policy is. Some big-box stores charge a 15% restocking fee. If you have any doubt in the accessibility of an appliance or you want to keep all your options open, either negotiate a no questions asked full refund for your transaction or shop where a restocking fee isn't assessed.

Ask to have appliances connected on the sales floor. Most of the appliances that you will see will not be plugged in, so when you find a model that you think you are ready to purchase, ask to have it connected. This may be an easy matter or out of the question, depending on the store and the circumstances. A long extension cord is often all that it takes. If the store is unwilling to let you try the controls but charges a restocking fee, go to another store. Since it may not be possible to connect electric stoves and dryers that operate on 220-volt power to preview the controls, you may want to confirm the usability of a unit by connecting a gas model whose controls have the same design, because gas units require only a standard 110-volt outlet.

Learning About Your Appliance

Although the availability of accessible controls has clearly diminished over the past several years, an adequate supply of devices with ambiguous controls remains available, and at all price levels. Once you choose an appliance, plan to spend some time learning about it. AFB TECH has gathered user feedback, published in AccessWorld. These are the salient points.

Plan to work with a reader or assistant to learn about your new appliance. While the geekier or technically motivated may want to plug in the new washer and see what the controls do, most people benefit from some focused time with a reader or assistant. When they were given specific instructions about the appliances with ambiguous controls, all the participants in AFB TECH's usability testing reported a positive shift in their confidence in using the appliances following instruction and information from someone who could describe the device.

Take notes. The participants who took notes, several braille readers, reported high confidence levels in using touch controls. Notes help keep you oriented to the controls and track your settings.

Plan to mark the appliance yourself. Each of the participants had unique strategies for applying tactile markings to the controls of their own appliances. Some participants stated that they used markings only when an appliance was new, while others reported that they maintained tactile markings for the entire life of their appliances.

Create a reference card or cheat sheet in braille or large print. Include information that is meaningful to you, such as a step-by-step list of instructions or a description of controls as they are encountered on the appliance. Many participants responded affirmatively to the availability of such a reference card.

Accessible documentation may be available for some models. A survey of several web sites, including those of Whirlpool and Frigidaire, revealed different levels of accessibility to the companies' web sites and product literature. Several of the PDF versions of the manuals that we examined were not tagged sufficiently to provide good readability with Adobe Reader and a screen reader.

Contact the manufacturer for detailed information. In a test call, a KitchenAid representative and I were able to discover many important characteristics of the company's wall ovens by reading the manual together. In addition to sharing the manual in PDF while we talked, she read extensive passages from it, allowing me to make detailed notes. She also invited me to call back at any time if I desired more information, including information from the manual.

Ask about braille and other kinds of labels. Whirlpool and GE both offer many templates and kits to mark their appliances. Other manufacturers may also provide these materials upon request.

Ask others about their experiences. If it is true that word of mouth is the best advertising, surely it is true for accessibility. There is nothing better than hearing about appliances firsthand from others who use them the same way that you do. In addition to your friends who are blind or have low vision, several web sites on the Internet allow you to download and listen to or read reviews of many products. These web sites include www.blindcooltech.com, www.acbradio.org and www.voiceofthenationsblind.org.

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