The Braille Monitor                                                                                                     February 2005

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Crisis at the Big Box Store, Part 2

by Brad Hodges

Brad Hodges
Brad Hodges

From the Editor: In the December 2004 issue Brad Hodges, technology accessibility manager at the Jernigan Institute's International Braille and Technology Center, reported on the accessibility of stoves. In the following reports he completes his assessment of kitchen equipment (dishwashers and refrigerators) and moves on to the laundry room to look at washers and dryers. He will tackle microwaves and home electronics in a few months. This is what he says:

Dishwashers

In comparison to the refrigerator, washing machine, and clothes dryer, the dishwasher is something of a Johnny-come-lately on the appliance scene. The first dishwashers intended for home use arrived as America rebounded from the limited availability of consumer goods after World War II. The dishwashers of the 1950's were more novelty and gadget than practical, labor-saving devices. They were top-loading units which were integrated into an entire kitchen cabinet.

The 1960's was a decade of change in America, and the dishwasher was not immune to this trend. The top-loading designs of the first generation gave way to the front-loading dishwasher we now recognize. For many American households in the sixties the installation of a dishwasher and perhaps other kitchen remodeling signaled the arrival of that family as solid members of the middle class, very much as the arrival of a subzero, built-in refrigerator fulfills the same aspiration for today's family.

Because practical and effective methods for washing dishes are available, the dishwasher is an appliance viewed by many people as a purely optional luxury. For those who grew up with them, however, these appliances may seem indispensable. Regardless of your viewpoint, there is no question that these simplest of appliances differ radically in their accessibility for those of us who are blind.

Unlike stoves, washing machines, and dryers, there is almost no variation on the basic technology and control setup for the dishwasher. Measuring a standard twenty-four inches in width and designed to install under an industry-standard cabinet base, all units have downward swinging doors with a locking mechanism.

Controls for these appliances are placed along the top of the door. At this point a little variation enters. Some controls are on the top front surface of the door (facing out into the room when the door is closed), while others are on the top edge of the door (facing upward as the door is opened). This latter design is often referred to as concealed or hidden controls.

As with other categories of appliances, accessibility is influenced by those perennial factors--manufacturer and price. As you would expect, a few brands dominate the industry: Whirlpool (with Sears Kenmore and KitchenAid), Maytag, Frigidaire, GE, and more recently Bosch and Siemens from Germany.

As this article was being prepared, we observed some significant changes in the characteristics of the controls on several brands and a change in the availability of brands from LG and Samsung. This demonstrates that accessibility is a moving target, and the machine that is accessible today may disappear tomorrow.

The controls of today's dishwashers can be divided into three categories. We will refer to these as "pushbuttons," "touch pads," and "bubble buttons." Regardless of the location--on the front of the door or on the top--the behavior of these controls was the same for all brands and models we investigated.

Pushbuttons, either alone or with a timer dial, are found on the simplest offerings from all brands, except for the German Bosch. The status of each button and position of the timer dial can be easily observed by touch. In addition to simplicity and good value, these units are also attractive for installation in rental properties, according to a number of members we talked with.

When considered on a scale of pure accessibility, units with pushbuttons are the first choice. At the same time their noise, lack of advanced features, and appearance may count against them for use in your home.

At the other end of the price/performance spectrum, many top-of-the-line units use touch pad or membrane controls. These offer the sleek appearance of high technology and, like the smooth surface of a microwave control area, are easy to clean.

Touch-pad controls are inaccessible nonvisually. While they can be labeled with Braille or other tactile markings, it is our experience that the requirement to access advanced menus and make other choices disqualifies these machines from consideration for most people. For example, knowing whether the "top rack only" mode is on or off is important. You must be able to determine the status of the control for this option before starting the cycle. Touch pads, even labeled ones, cannot disclose their status nonvisually. If a control is accidentally activated, returning to the previous values may be difficult or impossible.

The third control category is the bubble control. These controls are like touch pads with one exception, a change in the texture for each pad. Most often, in the Whirlpool models for example, a quarter-sized bubble in the membrane identifies each separate control. These discrete controls can be easily identified by touch.

For Bosch and Siemens models as well as Sears Kenmore and KitchenAid, the same principle applies for models with concealed controls. Easy-to-identify buttons are placed in a logical arrangement on the top edge of the door.

The behavior of these controls differs among brands. It is very important to take the time to evaluate types of controls and their functions before making a purchase. The first judgment is in the tactile characteristic of the controls. Whether they are located on the front or top of the door, can you feel them and easily orient yourself to them? Do they click, or will they beep to let you know that you have made a choice?

Once you have selected one or more models for purchase, learn the purpose of each control. Some units, like the middle-of-the-line Whirlpool, require that you make just one choice of a cycle, and then press the start button. This design prevents unknown options, such as "top rack only" or "no dry cycle," from being accidentally selected.

Other machines, including the Bosch and Sears Kenmore and KitchenAid with hidden controls, have what we will call "on/off" choices such as "heat dry on/off," or "top of rack only yes/no." If on/off controls are used, is there a clear/reset button or other way to set all controls to a known state from which you can select the options you want?

The Bosch units have a traditional on/off control which starts the machine. At first glance this would seem a good sign; on/off should clear the choices. Unfortunately this is not the case, resulting in a situation in which you can choose "top rack only," and, if you are not able to identify the small red LED for this choice, you will not know its status.

As with all other appliance shopping, finding a salesperson who understands the kinds of questions and concerns that arise when accessibility is involved is critically important. For this series of articles I have visited over twenty firms selling appliances, representing both appliance specialty dealers and big box stores. I am often asked if there is a relationship between the higher prices and presumably better service at the kitchen centers. The answer I must give is that the only pattern is no pattern. The most understanding and truly helpful sales associates I found were at a Best Buy in suburban Baltimore and a Sears in Wilmington, Delaware. At the same time a well-known ultra high-end purveyor of Wolf and Viking appliances ignored me and another customer for over half an hour in a wealthy northern Virginia suburb, an experience I also encountered at a Sears in suburban Washington, D.C.

Consumer Reports is considered by many people the gold standard for accuracy and comprehensiveness in ratings and evaluation of household appliances. Consumer Reports is available on cassette from the Library of Congress Talking Book program and can be ordered from your cooperating network library. <www.consumerreports.org> is an official Web site of Consumers Union, the magazine's parent organization. I think it is accurate to say that the usability and accessibility of <www.consumerreports.org> falls woefully short of even the minimum standards of nonvisual accessibility, to say nothing about setting a gold standard as with their magazine. While the promise of looking up information on the Web and browsing the details of reports and ratings is tantalizing, the poorly constructed report layout and completely inaccessible table layout deny the blind the full promise of this technology.

An alternative that is quite interesting and significantly more accessible can be found at <www.consumersearch.com>. This surprisingly comprehensive site is a distillation of ratings information gathered from Consumer Reports and other well-established ratings sources. In addition to the traditional ratings for appliances, electronics, and household goods, other ratings for software and high-tech services are offered. The narratives provided with each topic can often reveal details of a model or models that indicate whether accessibility may be more likely.

Refrigerators:

The comedian Rodney Dangerfield was fond of observing, "I don't get no respect." In the world of major appliance design the same may be true for the refrigerator. This most important and least control-laden member of the kitchen appliance family performs its vital service beautifully twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.

It is safe to say that the most complex control in the average refrigerator may be the turn knob for the temperature setting. This situation is, in the minds of some manufacturers, a critical problem in search of a high-tech solution.

Taken to its ultimate potential, Samsung envisions the refrigerator as a family communications center. Top-of-the-line models now offer a flat-screen display in the door. The fridge is networked on your home network and can be used to browse the Web, watch TV, and leave messages for the entire family.

Technology will soon be introduced that will allow you to automatically create shopping lists as you use up items in the refrigerator and automatically transmit the list to services such as Pea Pod. The system will give you an opportunity to add items of your own.

While this is the future taken to its ultimate, electronic controls are finding their way into mid-line, side-by-side models from several manufacturers. LG side-by-sides offer a digital readout of the temperatures in the refrigerator and freezer compartments. Buttons to change the temperature and receive status reports are becoming more common.

While we have not evaluated these kinds of controls, it is safe to say that they will differ in behavior from brand to brand. It is also safe to say that the complexity of these systems will increase and that the ways of choosing one appropriate for you will require the methods we have already described.

Washers and Dryers

Ever since our earliest ancestors began beating clothes on rocks in the river, laundry day has been an important part of almost everyone's life. Since those first efforts to clean and dry clothes, methods to increase the effectiveness of cleaning and shorten the time it takes have been constantly under development.

The Industrial Revolution made doing the laundry indoors with hot water a practical reality. Electricity automated and greatly shortened the process by providing predictability. With the advent of the electric clothes dryer, clean and dry clothes were available on even the wettest day.

While much of the computerized technology we take for granted today would not be recognized by a visitor from the past, the laundry room would be immediately familiar. Whether washing clothes in a drum or cylinder on its side, the twenty-first-century washing machine is not significantly different from those of the middle of the twentieth century. Similarly the clothes dryer uses the same basic set of pulleys, burner or electric element, and drum housed in a cabinet as the first dryers did.

If you have visited the home improvement center near you or shopped at an appliance store, you might conclude that the average washing machine is akin to a supercomputer according to the manufacturer's literature. Electronic controls, automatic dirt sensors, high-efficiency, direct-drive DC motors are the new must-have technologies, and according to GE your washing machine and dryer must be able to communicate.

In order to separate the reality of finding a useful and effective washing machine and clothes dryer from the marketing hype, many Monitor readers, like many other Americans, may turn to Consumer Reports magazine. For almost seventy years this publication has tracked trends and evaluated home appliances as well as countless other products and services. For our adventure in laundry land I have turned to the ratings of Consumer Reports and to our observations about the behavior and characteristics of today's washing and drying equipment. Our purpose is not to endorse one publication; rather it is to illuminate the findings of Consumers Union (CU) with our observations about accessibility.

The High-efficiency Trend

Over the past several years a significant change has taken place in the design of washing machines. Increasingly strict water-use restrictions have driven the trend toward front-loading, high-efficiency washing machines. Most recently some top-loading machines which also meet the high-efficiency standards have been introduced. An important characteristic of these units is the use of electronic technology in combination with the new physical design. Automatic load sensors and dirt monitors control the exact amount of water and the temperature of the water used. New high-speed motors extract more water from the wet clothes, reducing the electricity required to dry the load. GE has introduced a high-tech laundry pair that communicate with one another.

As one might expect, electronic controls have become the norm in these machines. Preset combinations of speed, water temperature, and wash times are provided for a variety of clothing types--towels, jeans, woolens, etc. In addition to controls that select the desired cycle, controls that change the preset values are provided.

Three brands of front-loading washing machines dominate the highest ratings group in the most recent Consumer Reports ratings. These are models from Whirlpool (including KitchenAid and Sears Kenmore), LG, and Bosch. The Whirlpool brands and LG each offer two models, with Bosch represented by just one offering.

Of the three manufacturers only Whirlpool machines are accessible in our opinion. These units are recognizable by the control layout. While each brand (Whirlpool Duet, Sears Kenmore Elite, and KitchenAid Superba) have different control designs, we believe that all are accessible if one receives a good orientation to the functions of the buttons and knobs.

Orienting yourself to the largest control cluster (found in the middle of the front surface above the door) you will encounter either a circular array of buttons or a large turn knob. These controls select the kind of wash load you intend to clean. The fabrics and the corresponding settings range from delicate/hand washables to jeans and, for some models, a sanitary cycle.

As you turn the knob, you feel a distinct click, and the pointer or a distinct mark on the control indicates the position of the control. If you wish, you can press the start button and accept the preset values for wash/rinse temperatures, wash-cycle time, and spin speed.

If you want to modify these settings--lengthening the wash cycle, for instance--various push buttons located on either side of the controls allow you to adjust these values. It is important to note the default settings and to learn the order of the changes for each control. For example, choosing the jeans setting will result in a high-spin speed, while choosing delicate will cause the indicator to display a low-spin speed. In order to change from high to low for the jeans setting, you need to press the button and count the number of presses required to move from high to low. This explanation may appear complex, but it's easy to master this method.

Sears Kenmore offerings use electronic controls rather than the knobs found on their Whirlpool and KitchenAid cousins. But each choice is easy to identify by touch. The resulting settings and method for changing options are the same as outlined above.

LG and Bosch units appear to be accessible at first glance. Thanks to a very helpful salesperson at a Baltimore-area Best Buy, we were able to determine definitively that the LG uses what I would call an endlessly turning knob. When you wish to select values, you must turn the dial and watch for the lights next to each value to illuminate. This excludes the LG from consideration because there is no way to predict the beginning point for the series of option lights.

Despite the use of easy-to-identify buttons and a tactilely useful dial, Bosch washers rely on an options menu to make changes to values which most people want to control. For this reason they join LG on the inaccessible list.

Less complex and expensive front loaders from Frigidaire and Sears round out the ratings in Consumer Reports. These units use traditional turn knob controls. They are, in our opinion, accessible in the classic way and do not require mastery of any particular skills to recall and count button presses.

Top-loading units are also rated by Consumer Reports. The top-rated Maytag Neptune TL FAV9800A[WW] ($1,300) is equipped with electronic controls. Controls for many Maytag units can be used nonvisually. If you are considering Maytag washers, you should audition the controls for yourself. The press-and-count method required for adjusting preset values in the front loaders above is taken a step further with Maytag machines. In addition, control layouts also differ depending on the cabinet style of the particular appliance.

When we think of New Zealand, images of sheep grazing contentedly in vast pastures may come to mind. We associate this country's exports with kiwi fruit and the BrailleNote. You can add major appliances to this list. Fisher & Paykel is a newcomer to the U.S. market, and its unique, high-efficiency washers garnered the number three and five spots on the CU ratings chart for top-loading washers.

After examining these machines at length, I would suggest that they rate as among the most accessible devices using electronic controls I have encountered.

As with other electronically controlled washing machines, you select a cycle. For Fisher & Paykel machines a clearly identifiable button corresponds to each of four or more cycles, depending on the unit. These buttons are located to the left of a small screen and a number of other buttons. Each of the basic functions, such as spin speed, wash/rinse temperature, and water level is selected with an up/down button pair. When you press the up button and reach the top of the list, you can hear a double beep. Similarly, when you have moved to the bottom of the menu list, you hear a double beep.

Turning the unit off clears all settings. Turning on the unit results in a distinct sound which allows you to navigate the menus and make choices, knowing that you are where you think you are. If you are interested in a high-efficiency unit which is also a top-loading machine, the Fisher & Paykel units are worthy of top consideration.

Beyond the high-tech offerings we have described here, conventional models abound. As with their ancestors, these machines use dials and easy-to-feel turn controls. The Maytag controls are particularly pleasant to use. A smoothly rotating motion interrupted by positive clicks makes using these dials especially pleasant. A clear pointer allows quick verification of the control position.

Clothes Dryers: Now that you have pulled the load of wet laundry from the washing machine, it is time to get it into a usable dryer to finish the job. As with washing machines, recent Consumer Reports ratings have evaluated dryers. Here are several observations about the usability of some of the highly rated units and other, similar models.

The top-rated dryers: GE Profile DPSB620EC[WW] and Profile DPSB620GC ($580) are among the most inaccessible appliances we have encountered. A vast array of touch buttons clutter a totally flat screen. For this reason we cannot recommend these models.

The highly rated dryers share a common manufacturer, Whirlpool. With the exception of the Sears Elite conventional front-loading dryer with electronic touch controls, the other Sears Kenmore units are all accessible. Conventional turn knobs and controls are easy to use nonvisually.

The dryers that match the highly rated front-loading washers are also accessible, whether from Sears Kenmore or Whirlpool. The controls on these top-of-the-line machines resemble the controls of their washing machine partners. A central control cluster selects basic fabric cycles with buttons modifying the settings. Two units were identified as CU Best Buys. These are a Whirlpool model in the $330 price range and a $310 Frigidaire. Both of these machines use conventional turn knob controls.

Bosch and LG dryers match the front-loading washers for each brand. Like the washers these dryers are not accessible, using the same control systems that exclude the washing machines from consideration.

A new style of dryer, the Maytag Neptune clothes center, has gained much attention lately. This dryer is twice as tall as a conventional dryer and features an upper cabinet, in which delicates and sweaters can be placed on shelves for drying. In addition, hanging clothes can be placed in the unit and a steam cycle activated. The controls of this top-of-the-line machine appear to be accessible, although you will want to confirm that they meet your needs and that you find them convenient before making a purchase.

As in shopping for other accessible large-ticket appliances, finding a good and knowledgeable sales person is the first step on the journey to a useful and accessible laundry room. As with other appliances, finding and auditioning the washer or dryer in the store can be almost impossible. Washers and gas dryers can be connected to a standard outlet, and the controls will be activated. Most dryers have both gas and electric models, which share the same controls, so you can be quite comfortable buying an electric model after auditioning the gas model's controls. Good luck.

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