Kitchen Appliance Accessibility

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Do you wonder how your visually impaired child can help with chores around the house? How can he warm up a snack or make popcorn in the microwave? How can he wash a load of clothes?

Here are some tips that will help you and your child make your household appliances easier to use.

Ask manufacturers 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 your child will. Several web sites allow you to download and listen to or read reviews of many products. These web sites include www.blindcooltech.com, www.acbradio.org and AccessWorld®.

The Kinds of Controls Your Child Will Encounter

The American Foundation for the Blind's testing lab, AFB TECH, has defined three classes of controls that cover the range of accessibility that they observed on the market. These three classes include "accessible controls," "inaccessible controls," and "ambiguous controls." They defined these classes as follows.

Accessible Controls

Accessible controls are those that have historically been provided on appliances, including conventional turn knobs, such as those that are found on stove burners and dryers. Mechanical push buttons that latch or change position when engaged also fall into this category.

In almost all instances, your child can feel accessible controls to determine their status. On a stove, reaching to feel the burner control at the 9 o'clock position would let your child know that the burner is set to simmer. Feeling the pointer of the dryer control periodically as the cycle progresses would allow him to predict how much longer the cycle will take.

Of the three classes of controls, these are the only ones that allow a person who is blind both to position the appliance settings and to confirm those settings independently while the appliance is operating.

Inaccessible Controls

These provide no means of direct tactile identification or direct observation of the status of the appliance. They are typified by the flat touch panel that is found on the majority of microwave ovens and many other appliances, such as wall ovens and dishwashers.

Inaccessible controls will require some adaptation to be usable by your visually impaired child. In some instances, even modification, such as the use of braille or other tactile markings, cannot make the control usable.

Ambiguous Controls

Ambiguous controls fall in between the accessible and inaccessible classes. The ambiguous control provides at least some feedback to your child. Examples include oven controls that set a default temperature of 350 degrees when turned on. Pressing textured regions on the smooth control panel activates the controls. Pressing the Up and Down controls increases or decreases the temperature by 5 degrees for each press of the control.

In addition to changing the temperature, a distinct beep is heard as each control is pressed. By counting beeps, your child can set the temperature accurately. Direct verification of the temperature is not provided because direct observation of the display is not possible with the electronic oven control. This ambiguity creates a situation in which it is possible to set the oven nonvisually, but full independent access to the information on the display is not provided.

For more information, including descriptions of the accessibility of stoves, wall ovens and cooktops, microwave ovens, dishwashers, and washers and dryers, check out the AccessWorld Appliance Accessibility Guide in the Technology section of AFB's website.

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