Braille Monitor                                                                                                           December 2004

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Talking Turkey about Household
Appliances and Consumer Electronics:
Crisis for the Blind at the Big Box Store

by Brad Hodges

Brad Hodges with an accessible stove.
Brad Hodges with an accessible stove.

From the Editor: In the October issue Terry Uttermohlen and Jim McCarthy shared their frustrations about trying to purchase a stove that they could operate without calling in the National Guard. Brad Hodges, technology accessibility manager at the NFB's International Braille and Technology Center (IBTC), has undertaken to prepare a series of articles over the next few months discussing the perils and pitfalls facing blind people attempting to buy consumer appliances and electronic products. The first of these is stoves, cook tops, and ovens. If you are thinking about replacing your old stove, you won't want to miss the information that follows. This is what Brad has to say:

It sometimes appears that everyone is remodeling at least one room in the house. If it is not a new kitchen, it is a home theater or media room. At least two cable channels devote themselves entirely to the topic, and ABC's Extreme Makeovers has transformed remodeling into a prime-time spectator sport. Given the unprecedented attention to these subjects, what are the implications for blind people? How do the trends that all but erase the once clearly understood boundaries between electronics and--let us say--your refrigerator affect us? Is there a chance that you won't be able to do your laundry independently?

In this series of articles the NFB technology team hopes to accomplish two important goals. First we will report our current understanding of the features, behaviors, and usability of specific household appliances. Second we want to invite Monitor readers to participate in an online discussion and exchange of ideas by visiting <www.voiceofthenationsblind.org>.

We begin with some thoughts on buying a stove by Brad Hodges, NFB's technology accessibility manager. In future Monitors we will address other kitchen appliances, laundry room challenges, and consumer electronics.

Some Thoughts on Purchasing a Stove

Like many other Americans I was saddened by the death of Julia Childs earlier this year. For millions of TV viewers of my generation her unique blend of style, charm, and skill gave us the courage to venture boldly into our own kitchens and try new and often foreign recipes and methods of cooking. As Federationists we too encourage one another to learn the skills of blindness, which allow us the freedom to cook for our families and ourselves.

As Julia often pointed out, the first step in cooking something in a new way is to have the proper tools at hand. In the case of cooking as a blind person, the tools aren't any different from those used by our sighted neighbors and spouses. We do, however, require that they be nonvisually accessible. For example, choosing a new set of gourmet cookware doesn't require any special consideration because of blindness. Picking out knives or bakeware is not a big deal if you are blind since, at least so far, all cookware, utensils, and cutlery are nonvisually accessible.

Perhaps you are thinking, "This is the guy who is usually writing about technology, and he's talking about cooking utensils--what's the story?" Fear not, readers, because, yes, technology is involved. In the digital era even the lowly thirty-inch gas or electric range has been transformed.

If you have not visited the appliance department at one of the home improvement stores or Sears lately, do I have news for you. While you were away, content with your good old reliable Tappan or O'Keefe and Merritt range, designers from the four big appliance manufacturers have been hard at work. And more often than not their idea of design success is our recipe for disaster.

The first ingredient in the new stove design recipe is the flat cooking surface. Gone are the easy-to-find, familiar metallic spiral coil burners of yesterday's electric stove. In their place is today's high-tech ceramic cooking surface, which according to one enthusiastic salesperson at my Home Depot, is based on space shuttle technology. After examining a number of ceramic cook tops, I was hard pressed to decide if they were really space-shuttle technology, or just inaccessible technology of the more earthly variety. Regrettably, you can't try using stoves or ovens before you buy one.

How They Work

The entire top of the stove is a single, flat, totally smooth glass surface. Think of a glass window surrounded by a metal frame. Four or five round or oblong regions of the surface are designated as "burners." The sighted cook can easily identify these regions visually by their contrasting color or pattern. The ceramic material is cast around electric elements that glow red hot, as did their earlier nonceramic counterparts. For the most part you control the cooking by conventional knobs, which are easily identifiable.

I have asked a number of Federationists whether they have experience with ceramic cook surfaces. A few have, and here is what they say. Bonnie, a Federation member in suburban Baltimore, loves her three-year-old GE Profile electric range with a flat cook surface. She reports that once you turn on the burner, the surface begins to warm. It is easy and safe to locate the burner area by touch. Placing the pot or pan correctly is a simple matter. When you remove a pot from a burner at full temperature and want to return it to the burner, she says you can feel the heat rising from the glass surface and position the pot where you want it to be. A number of visitors to the IBTC also enjoy the new cooking technology. They report that overcoming misgivings is not always easy, but once you develop alternative techniques, the flat cook tops aren't bad. Like Bonnie they all report that once you feel the heat rising from the burner area, you're home free. Others have found that with experience you can orient yourself easily and place the pot or pan on the proper region, even when it is hot. But not all the reviews have been as favorable. Several people unexpectedly found themselves confronted by smooth cook tops when they moved into apartments, where they could not choose their own appliances. For these people cooking has become more difficult.

Gas cook surfaces have not yet been transformed. All the gas stoves of which we are aware use conventional grates, which continue to remain nonvisually accessible.

If you must have a stove with conventional coil burners, get ready to settle for a bottom-of-the-line, plain-vanilla model from a company whose name you've never heard of. An alternative is to purchase a separate cook top with conventional burners and a wall oven. High-quality conventional cook tops are available from the leading manufacturers in the four primary appliance colors: bisque, black, stainless steel, and white.

To the flat cook surface, add one set of electronic controls. Yes, electronic controls have invaded the kitchen. Fear not, however. Like learning to make that perfect souffle, choosing a stove you can use requires skill and patience, but as Julia taught us, you can do it.

Generally the electronic controls operate the oven, broiler, self-cleaning control, and clock/timer. Thankfully, in all but a select few ultra high-end models, the burners are still controlled by knobs. Gas ovens have the same electronics as their electric brethren.

Two technologies are used in these controls. Less expensive models typically use a sturdy, flexible plastic film stretched across a back panel, which contains recessed buttons. Examples of this control are found on GE and Kenmore stoves in the $300 to $599 price range. When you examine the plastic film, check for round or rectangular areas with a contrasting texture. Think of finding Scotch Tape on a smooth piece of plastic. Move your finger firmly across the surface. You may well be able to press against the panel and feel the buttons under the plastic film. Pushing the control will result in a clearly noticeable inward movement of the plastic membrane or a clicking sound from the button.

The second kind of control is the touch-sensitive solid-glass plate. The technology here is more advanced and as a rule is found on upper lines such as GE Profile, Whirlpool Gold, and Jenn Air. While several techniques can be used to detect the button press, the common characteristic is that no tactually discernible button movement occurs. In all examples of the glass touch surface I have examined, a beep or tone indicates that a control has been activated, as with a microwave oven.

This technology is a moving target. Models, controls, and the behavior of units change at a frighteningly fast pace. Here is what we can report as of late summer and early fall 2004. Brand and color make a difference. In many brands of stoves and wall ovens, GE especially, the color of the control background makes a difference with respect to the texture of the control surface. GE and Hot Point stoves with a black background (not including GE Profile models) often have easily discernible quarter-sized regions of texture on the otherwise smooth plastic panel. Behind each is a button, which when pressed makes a distinct sound and provides a positive feel. GE controls in bisque or white do not appear to have these identifiable regions.

Whirlpool and its Kenmore counterparts in black, bisque, and white appeared to have the most models with textured identifiable control regions. This is also true of KitchenAid wall ovens, several of which even have a microwave-style keypad for direct temperature entry. All Maytag, Jenn Air, and all but a few GE Profile and Frigidaire stoves have tactually unidentifiable regions on their control panels; virtually all models from these manufacturers use absolutely flat plastic or glass surfaces.

Style makes a difference. Freestanding ranges, the kind most people have, offer the most accessible electronic controls. Standard Whirlpool ranges and their Kenmore siblings are surprisingly accessible. Many units across the entire price spectrum offer textured pads on the control panel.

Drop-in and slide-in units, which have all controls on the front above the oven door and below the burners, seem to be the least accessible as a group. In examining dozens of models, I observed only three or four slide-in units whose touch controls could be tactually identified. Touch-sensitive glass controls predominate in the slide-in units.

Wall ovens, when combined with a cook top (see above), offer some flexibility not always available in a single unit, range, or slide-in. Kitchenaid offers several conventional and convection ovens with clearly identifiable controls arranged in a microwave- oven-like manner. Conversations with the Kitchenaid rep and examination of the manual convince me that these models are accessibility standouts.

Strategies

The first line of defense is a good offense. This is as true when shopping for appliances as in other areas of life. Finding a good salesperson is critically important. You may want to begin your search with a visit to a large retailer such as Sears, Lowe's, Home Depot, or Best Buy. In over a dozen visits to Sears stores in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, I found that the knowledge and understanding of the sales associates ran the gamut from ignorance and indifference to attentive and enlightened understanding.

When you arrive at the store, browse the various stoves independently for a time. You will soon begin to find those whose controls you can feel. When talking with the salesperson, point these out and ask that they also feel the controls to understand the particular characteristics you are looking for.

Most stores, such as Sears, Home Depot, Lowe's, and Best Buy, keep only a few models on the sales floor at a time. Most manufacturers have extensive catalogues available for special ordering. If you have a good salesperson, he or she may be able to observe the characteristics of an accessible model and identify and suggest others in the same design line.

Try before you buy. While electric stoves must be connected to 220V electric service for controls to be operational, their gas counterparts do not require special electrical service. All modern gas stoves connect to a common 110V outlet to operate the igniters, controls, and clock. Once you plug in the gas stove, the controls will be active. If you are purchasing an electric model, request that the store connect a gas model with the same controls for you to try. Even though you are purchasing electric, you will have a higher degree of confidence that the unit will behave properly. Be aware, though, that many sales reps with whom I spoke were unwilling to meet this request.

Try the controls. It is critical that the oven temperature controls move up and down predictably. Look for a control which moves the temperature up or down one segment for each button press, usually in five-degree increments. Be sure that you can feel a control button press or hear a confirmation tone for each change in the temperature. Find out whether the oven temperature always returns to a specific setting each time you turn on the oven. A few ovens, ones that purport to think for you, will reset the oven to the last temperature you used. Others will always reset the temperature, most often to 350 degrees.

Find out what the return policy is. If a store is unable or unwilling to guarantee your satisfaction that the stove you purchase will work for you, move on to the next store. This issue can be particularly contentious when special ordering is involved. Several Federationists reported this to be one of the most difficult and ultimately important aspects of what was generally a very unpleasant process.

Go online. Many manufacturers maintain Web sites that provide important information about models and options. Most owners manuals can be downloaded. Take the time to read the manual for a model you are considering if you have any question about how it will behave. As mentioned above, KitchenAid manuals are clear about the kind of audible feedback you will receive from their units. Frigidaire manuals are less clear and as a group are more difficult to manage than those from other brands.

Alternative techniques: blind people have been modifying appliances for years, so perhaps you're asking yourself, "What's all the fuss?" To some extent, the tried and true methods can sometimes still be used. Marking a glass control panel on a slide-in range or up-scale model is a practical method for many people. But others wonder why they should have to put sticky labels on a stove that costs $1,800.

Templates are a useful strategy which you may want to consider. Made of sturdy, clear plastic, the template is affixed to or held against the control surface. Openings in the plastic correspond to the controls of the touch surface. If you carefully orient yourself to the openings, accurate, consistent control is quite simple.

Templates are not generally manufactured for appliances; they are special-order purchases. When you purchase a template, some advanced preparation is required. You will need to take a photograph of the control panel for which the template is being made and submit exact tracings of the controls, including the boundary. In the case of a large area such as a stove with a significant distance between knobs, you will also need to consider the method you will use to position the template. It may also be useful to create a cardboard mockup of the template. Having a skilled reader or someone who is generally handy is important. You should expect to pay between $100 and $200 for each template. Templates must be specially ordered. Turning Point (877) 608-9812 provides custom templates for a variety of devices. While we do not have direct experience with Turning Point, they are well regarded by many consumers and professionals who have used their services. If you are contemplating using a template for an existing appliance or for a new purchase, your best results will be obtained by calling them first. In a recent conversation the representative was clear and helpful and answered all my questions in a knowledgeable, professional manner. Turning Point is also on the Web at <www.turningpointtechnology.com>.

There is no easy way to predict your success in finding the stove that meets all of your needs. I hope that these observations are helpful. The power of the NFB comes from the involvement of all of us. Go to <www.voiceofthenationsblind.org> and continue the conversation with other Federationists. Ask others at your next chapter meeting or state convention about their experiences and remember the technology answer line at the NFB Jernigan Institute, (410) 659-9314, choose option 5. In the words of the late Julia Childs, "Bon appétit."

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Planned giving takes place when a contributor decides to leave a substantial gift to charity. It means planning as you would for any substantial purchase--a house, college tuition, or car. The most common forms of planned giving are wills and life insurance policies. There are also several planned giving options through which you can simultaneously give a substantial contribution to the National Federation of the Blind, obtain a tax deduction, and receive lifetime income now or in the future. For more information write or call the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

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