When viewed over the past 36 months of monitoring for accessibility of controls, the dishwasher category is best described as an accessibility rollercoaster ride. Until recently, models at all price-performance levels from most manufacturers were available and accessible. This is no longer the case. Maytag and GE units across the price-performance spectrum all use flat controls that provide no tactile features. At the same time, well-respected high-end models from KitchenAid, which were the paragon of accessibility, replaced clear and easy-to-use buttons with a flat, featureless, touch-sensitive strip of controls along the top of the door, several years ago. Happily those controls have been replaced by textured strips which many people may find easy to use. Similarly, Sears Kenmore units, which often pattern themselves after other popular manufacturers, went through a period of inaccessible touch strip controls. As with KitchenAid, newer Sears Kenmore offerings include more tactile controls.

Current Accessibility

For an accessible dishwasher, think German. A modestly priced Mealy unit, at $400, uses a turn knob with an easy-to-feel pointer and a single Start control. Bausch controls remain easy to feel, as do those on Asco. An LG machine, which appears to be a Bausch look-alike, also uses easy-to-feel buttons and controls. Fisher and Paykel (the New Zealand-based manufacturer) has introduced a new kind of dishwasher. Resembling a large kitchen cabinets drawer, the unit pulls out and is filled from the top. A pair of Up and Down buttons, located just inside the unit, set the wash cycle, and an easy-to-feel Start button on the face of the washer starts the unit. Reports from Australia indicate that many people find the machine to be accessible and convenient. Other manufacturers, including Whirlpool and KitchenAid, offer versions of the Fisher and Paykel droor-style washer.

Except for models at the entry level, no machines allow nonvisual access to information about the progress of the cycle. In basic machines, the mechanical timer control turns as the cycle progresses, providing direct tactile information to the user. Whirlpool dishwashers and many Sears Kenmore units use easy-to-feel embossed controls. The size of a quarter, these controls are molded into the flexible face of the plastic control panel. Pressing them results in a clear movement of the finger. The Start button is often physically separated from the cycle controls and is usually a contrasting shape. Unlike Whirlpool ranges, dishwashers of this brand do not appear to provide confirmation tones. KitchenAid and Sears Kenmore offer touch strips which can be easily felt by many individuals. These units represent the mid-range to higher end of the price range for dishwashers.

Best Options

Except for GE and Maytag, most large manufacturers offer at least some models which are useable and accessible. The German manufacturers have offered controls which can be easily used by touch for many years. Whirlpool offers the most comprehensive range of models, all of witch include accessible controls. Other brands appear to change control design more often and may offer both useable and inaccessible models.

Shopping Strategies

As with all other appliances, shop at several large stores. Sears stores and some other larger retail locations have units which are active in a demonstration mode, providing a real world opportunity to try the unit. Check to ensure that controls which offer on-off choices, such as upper rack wash only, are manageable. Look for a clear control, or check if the On/Off control resets choices to a predictable state. Units which "remember" your last settings, even when you turn them off, may be less useful than those which permit a reset of the controls. Strike while the iron is hot—an accessible and useable model you see today may not be available the next time you visit the store. Check on continuing availability if you are shopping over a period of time to avoid a very desirable model getting away from you because it was discontinued.