Braille Monitor                                                                                                           October 2004

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Your Panels Leave Me Flat

by Terri Uttermohlen and Jim McCarthy

Terri Uttermohlen takes a loaf of bread out of the oven now that she has a stove she can control.
Terri Uttermohlen takes a loaf of bread out of the oven now that she has´┐Ż a stove she can control.

From the Editor: As recently as November of 2000 I returned home from a business trip to Australia to discover that in my absence my husband had purchased a birthday gift for me of a new gas stove. It was installed and ready to go. I had heard of people's problems with inaccessible stoves, so I explored the controls with a certain amount of trepidation. To my joy, the controls were completely accessible--at least they were after I applied Braille labels on transparent Dymo tape. Either I was extremely lucky, or things have become much more difficult in the intervening four years. Here is an account of the adventures of National Federation of the Blind Director of Governmental Affairs Jim McCarthy and his wife Terri Uttermohlen when they set out to buy a gas stove in the summer of 2004:

"What a nice stove!" Jim, my husband, and I exclaimed to each other as we looked through a prospective house. "Even though it has a flat panel control, it has all of those little textured areas to mark what you have to push." We admired the kitchen's many other features as we explored. The modern kitchen sold us on our quirky and beautifully restored North Baltimore duplex. We made a bid that night and moved in a month later.

Typical of those moving, we ate meal after meal of carry-out or delivered food until we finally exhumed our kitchen utensils and pans. To celebrate, we decided to make our favorite baked pork chops with thyme and oyster sauce. We prepared the meat, and put it in the oven. We put on the potatoes and selected some veggies. After about forty-five minutes we opened the oven to see if the chops were done. We expected the mouth-watering fragrance of the meat to waft from the open oven door. It didn't. We were disappointed to discover that the chops were barely warm. We reset the oven as we had been instructed, and after repeating the process unsuccessfully over the course of a couple of hours, we hauled out the skillet and fried the darned things, assuming that we were making an error when setting the temperature.

Over time friends, neighbors, and family members all experimented with the controls. No matter what sequence of buttons we tried, the oven didn't come on at a consistent temperature and was temperamental about registering the increases or decreases we requested. This was no particular problem for folks who could read the display but presented a real problem for us, since we are both totally blind. Assuming that the controls weren't operating properly, we called a repair service.

I explained the situation to the repairman when he arrived. After experimenting for a couple of minutes, the service man said, "It works just like it should." He handed us a bill for $50 and left.

We decided that we had no choice but to resort to reading the directions. After a lengthy search we found the print manual for sale online. When we received it, we explored, hoping to find instructions that would allow us to change the initial temperature setting so that it would be consistent. Unfortunately we discovered that the repair guy was right--the stove did what it was supposed to do. The oven was supposed to start at the most recent temperature used--unless some mysterious combination of keys caused it to reset to a lower temperature. Once the starting temperature was displayed, the user could adjust the heat up and down using the flat panel buttons on the right.

We decided to keep a temperature log, assuming that we could usually adjust from a known starting point. But even with careful recording, the result was disastrous. We singed a pizza at 495 degrees, barely bothered a meat loaf at 120, and finally gave up in disgust.

By mid-June Jim had had enough. He insisted that we needed a new oven. He complained that I never baked anymore. He missed the cookies and homemade bread I made when the mood struck me. I was reluctant. We were trying to be careful with money, and a range costs a lot. Surely we could limp along for a while, couldn't we?

I was inspired to make puff pastry one Saturday a couple of weeks ago to present a treat to Jim Sunday morning. The week before we had baked crab cakes with a verified temperature of 350 degrees. So I figured I'd be safe to turn on the oven and expect my pastry to be warm and brown by the time Jim awakened. I cut sour apples, made the turnover filling, and made the little pies. I proudly arranged them on a cooking stone and opened the oven. Even though the preheat beep had assured me the oven was ready, it felt no hotter in there than a good day at the beach. Since I had planned to cook the turnovers, rather than entertain them, I had to resort to three frustrating rounds of baking in the toaster oven. I reluctantly admitted that Jim was right; we needed to move our search for a range up the fiscal priority list.

Thus began our serious search for an accessible range. Our friend Brad Hodges, technology accessibility manager for the National Federation of the Blind and blind himself, had just completed an exhaustive search for an accessible stove. We asked Brad about his research.

"Terri, dear," he said, "There just isn't much out there that you can use without sticking labels all over it."

We told Brad that we were willing to have labels, as long as that meant the range would do what we needed it to. Brad encouraged us to test whatever we planned to buy by having the store plug the range into a 110-volt socket. That precaution made a lot of sense.

We needed a black, slide-in gas range. We decided that we also wanted a convection oven in addition to several other features. Consumer Reports had rated several convection ovens in our price range, so we went out for a look. The first appliance store we went to was recommended by a friend. We saw a lovely range on display. I began to look for the controls. Unsuccessful, I asked the salesman to show me its location. He pointed to the smooth glass space between the burner knobs.

"Really?" I asked. "There's no tactile indication at all. Could we label it?" We had a microwave with similarly unhelpful controls, and the Braille labels worked fine.

The salesman looked in the book and asked his manager. He said that labeling would block the mechanism that sensed a finger and would thus render the oven controls not workable. Jim and I received this news with disappointment and some skepticism.

The salesman suggested that we call GE and get an overlay for the stove we wanted. Jim called GE on our way home. According to GE, they had absolutely no overlays for gas stoves. They also had no templates for the flat-panel ranges, even though templates or Braille labels would be the only means to make these panels usable. They would, however, be happy to provide an overlay to label a dial--not altogether helpful since they no longer made ovens with dial controls.

We went back home to do more phone and Web research. It seemed that every model and type of stove had its own display layout and look. Even the gas and electric versions of the same stove model differed in panel layout and texture. No one we could find used oven dials anymore. Instead, we could choose from flat panels with buttons behind them that the user could almost feel and flat glass panels with no tactile indication. Both of these panel types needed extensive labeling to be useful at all.

We were wary of purchasing a range with a flat glass control panel, in case the salesman at the first appliance store was right. Unfortunately every available convection oven had that type of totally inaccessible flat glass control panel. We selected two possible models to test but couldn't find anyone willing to let us plug them in to test the behavior of the controls. Usually we were told that the stove (even though it was gas) needed a 220-volt socket. Brad had prepared us for this, but even after we convinced the salesmen that the electronic controls required only 110 volts, they said we couldn't test the stoves for one reason or another.

One store told us that the range was too far from any outlet even to be reached with an extension cord. Another had built the range into a semi-permanent display and couldn't move it or get to its electric cord. One salesman said that he would need a special crew to plug it in and that his boss wouldn't let him get the crew.

We finally narrowed down our choice and asked a shop to order the model we wanted. However, we told them that we could not accept delivery unless we could test the range at the store first. The store manager said grumpily that doing that would be impossible; if we couldn't use it, the store would be stuck with the stove. Of course, if it were not accessible to us, we would be stuck with one more unusable stove, and the inaccessibility of our otherwise perfectly good stove was what got us started on this quest in the first place.

We finally found a young salesman at Sears who understood what we wanted. He didn't hesitate to plug in the range we wanted so that we could test the controls, even though he was going against store policy. This oven had one of those completely flat glass panels, so we would have to label it in order to use it at all. The salesman pulled out several types of sticky labels, and we experimented with laying them over the controls and pushing the space to request an action by the stove. It worked without fail, so we bought the range.

This search was extremely frustrating. Appliance manufacturers are so enamored of the sleek look that even basic household equipment is unusable without significant modification. It shouldn't be this hard to find a workable stove or any other essential appliance. Manufacturers seem unaware that a growing percentage of the population needs to touch rather than see, to operate tools. It would take only a little consideration and design change to make these essential appliances accessible to blind people.

Some manufacturers maintain that they use universal design principles in their appliances. Unfortunately, at the design stage they haven't asked, or even considered, what blind residents of the universe need. Meanwhile we who are blind are forced to solve new problems every year just to maintain our normal lives. We love our house and still love our kitchen. At the moment we are waiting for our new range to be delivered and installed. Once we have it, we must immediately label it in order to make it accessible. We chose to bet the price of the stove that it would work for us. Let's hope we win the bet. After all, we can't really afford to lose.

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