Blind World Magazine

Applying research to appliances.

The Fresno Bee, California USA.
Saturday, September 09, 2006.

Product design can make all the difference in ease of use. Some tips can help in the hunt.

CAPTION: When Toni Eames' washing machine gave out, she did some research online and found a model recommended by the National Federation of the Blind.

Nearly 30 years ago, Jeff Eben of Clovis had a water-skiing accident that left him in a wheelchair, his hands in a curled position. Over the years, he's learned what he can and can't do around the house.

He can open and work a microwave - if it's not too high. He can get his hands around most refrigerator handles. He can get laundry out of the washer and dryer, but working the controls still can be tricky.

"The buttons are up on top, and it's hard to reach over and do them," he says.

One appliance that is especially difficult is the dishwasher, particularly after he and his family moved to a newly-built home in April, where they had to deal with the appliances that came with the house.

"The dishwasher is still a challenge," says Eben, 45, a motivational speaker and former Clovis East High School principal. "I'm still trying to figure out ways to open it. [The door handle] doesn't fit my hand really well."

When a reporter tells him about dishwashers that roll out like drawers, he is surprised but hesitant.

"I'd have to see them," he says, adding he would be interested in checking them out.

With so many different types of major appliances available, finding ones that fit your needs can be difficult, especially if you have a disability. Eben isn't the only disabled person who wasn't aware there are major appliances that might be easier for him to use. As manufacturers design more appliances for people of all abilities, there are a number of choices to consider. Knowing what features to look for can help make the search easier.

Universal appliances

While looking at major appliances, you probably will come across two phrases: assistive technology and universal design. These terms often are used by manufacturers to assure people with disabilities that the appliances are convenient and easy to use.

"Assistive technology is a fairly new field," says Scott Kupferman, an assistive technology advocate at the Center for Independent Living-Fresno. "It's anything that can help a person with disabilities live an independent life. It can be a voice- activated computer to a low-tech device such as a cane."

CAPTION: Eames outfitted her microwave with Braille stickers. Some microwave models offer a voice feature that speaks displays and warnings. Diana Baldrica / The Fresno Bee

Universal design also is a recent concept "where manufacturers are keeping people with disabilities in mind when they design," he says.

The Web site for the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University states: "The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities."

Some manufacturers also are designing appliances that meet the Americans with Disabilities Act. While the law is geared more for commercial or business properties, some manufacturers are building home appliances that would meet ADA guidelines. For example, washers that aren't higher than 34 inches or free-standing ranges with the controls on the front would fit those guidelines.

These products may not look dramatically different from other appliances, but their features can make a difference in usability.

"If they're good for a certain user group, they'll be good for everyone," says Marc Hottenroth, who leads the industrial design team at General Electric in Louisville, Ky.

Shopping tips

Certain adjustments on major appliances can make them easier for some people to use. For example, people in wheelchairs have a shorter reach than those who are not.

"You want to have a working space 15 to 48 inches above the ground," says Lori Bentley, vice president of Bentley Design & Remodeling in Hanford. She has multiple sclerosis. "They can't reach below 15 inches, and 48 inches is about the max they can reach."

Bentley and assistive- technology advocates, including Assistive Technology Partners in Denver, offer these considerations when shopping:

Refrigerators: Shallow depth - about as deep as your countertop - so food is within reach; models with French doors and freezer bottoms.

Dishwashers: Shorter, standard-function dishwashers that are 34 inches tall and can fit under lowered countertops. Countertop dishwashers are an option for people with difficulty bending. Dish drawers may be easier to load for some people.

Ovens: Side-opening doors that allow people with wheelchairs to get closer to the units. "They are becoming more popular," Bentley says.

Stoves and ranges: Controls on the front, but be aware: If there are children in the house, they can get to the controls, too. Also, stoves that can be safely installed with an opening below for people in wheelchairs.

Microwaves: A voice feature that speaks displays and warnings.

Washers and dryers: Knobs that click and are near the front for an easy reach.

As for cost, "They may be a little more," Bentley says. "It's typically which features you select that are going to be a determining factor" in the price. For example, a basic stove with controls in the front can cost about $500, while a refrigerator with French doors and a bottom freezer can start at about $1,500.

Then there are specialty products that also can be more expensive than standard versions. For example, talking microwaves for people who are visually impaired cost about $360.

Most manufacturers provide no-cost Braille kits that can be ordered and installed for people who are blind or visually impaired. However, not all manufacturers have kits for all models; check with the manufacturer about the specific model you're interested in.

Sometimes, major appliances just need some minor modifications to fit individual needs.

For example, a temperature knob with small raised stickers marking the main degrees might be an advantage to someone with a visual impairment. If this would be of help, contact PG&E, and one of its employees will come out and label major appliances with Braille markings for free.

That's what the utility company did for Toni Eames of Fresno 19 years ago. Someone came out and placed dots on the temperature dial for her oven.

However, when it came to her dryer, microwave and new washer, she ended up modifying the control panels herself with Dymotape Braille labels.

"I label," says Eames, 62, a retired rehabilitation counselor who was born with limited vision and now is blind. "Touch screens are a nightmare. You can't feel anything. It's so flat, even if you know it's the third button over, you wouldn't know where to press."

Eames knows how troublesome shopping can be for a new major appliance. When her washing machine finally gave out three months ago,it was time to find a new one.

"I had heard it was complicated," she says of buying new appliances. "As more modern things become, the more difficult they become to access for those who are blind."

She did some research online and found a Maytag machine she liked that was recommended by the National Federation of the Blind. It had knobs that clicked when they turned, but she still added her own Braille labels. That way, she knew whether she had turned on the extra rinse cycle and set the load to the right setting.

Organizations such as the Center for Independent Living can help with a search for such products and even contractors.

"Do your research," Kupferman says. "You might have to dig, but there's so much info out there."

When it comes to buying, even if you get assistance, make sure you test it yourself, Eames says. You know your strengths and weaknesses best.

Talk to other disabled people to get their recommendations, she says. Also, write to the manufacturers and let them know what needs improving, she says.

Bentley agrees.

"Don't stop if you're not satisfied," she says. "It's really good to take that research to closure."

The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6467. Jeff Eben says some appliances in newer homes are difficult to use.

CAPTION: Eames' washing machine is outfitted with Braille stickers.

Diana Baldrica / The Fresno Bee

CAPTION: The laundry room in Jeff Eben's new Clovis home is narrow, and it's a challenge in his wheelchair to maneuver to operate the washing machine and dryer. Kurt Hegre / The Fresno Bee

End of article.

Any further reproduction or distribution of this article in a format other than a specialized format, may be an infringement of copyright.

Go to ...

Top of Page.

Previous Page.

List of Categories.

Home Page.

Blind World Website
Designed and Maintained by:
George Cassell
All Rights Reserved.

Copyright Notice
and Disclaimer.