By Thomas Bryan
Editor’s note: Thomas Bryan is an active Blind Citizens NZ member and an experienced accessibility advocate across many domains of technology, information and getting around. He hosts a radio show No Labels on Wellington Access Radio and is a trustee of the Media Access Charitable Trust (Able). He keeps abreast of developments in the accessible home appliances space. Contact Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org
When did you last buy a new appliance – a washer, oven, television or even a heat pump? If you ever have, you will most likely have noticed that there are an alarming number of makes and models to choose from. From my own experience, just trying to get your hands on a working model to see if it will meet your needs–and most of all if you’ll be able to use it–is not easy.
Many home appliances sold in New Zealand have become harder for many in our community to use confidently, and independently. The old days where one would plug in a washer or dryer, or set up a new oven, and be able to work it with little adaptation–have almost gone.
Today, many home appliances often come without standard controls such as buttons and knobs.
When they do, there are often multi-level visual menu systems which then make them almost impossible to use, unless you work out a system that works for you. This might mean you being able to recall the number of clicks or pushes you need to carry out to select the option you’re after.
You may have to develop your own user instructions, along with marking up the control panel with bumpons or Penfriend tags. You might develop your own recording, or a large print or braille reference sheet, to be able to confidently change a number of settings.
Whatever we need to do, it’s often not that easy and sometimes we may resort to limiting the options we use.
Some readers may recall the days of the old top loader washer with a row of buttons, sliders, or switches and large rotary knob. Appliances such as this are still out there but they are harder to find.
The majority of new appliances come with a myriad of functions and variations all controlled either by a touch screen, touch sensitive pads, or up and down control buttons which have different settings to choose from. All too often, you need to be able to see what the menu options are to be able to make the choice that meets your needs. Even finding ways to figure out what we need to do or select, means we are reliant on someone seeing what is there and providing useful information to assist us.
The heart of the problem is that designers don’t realise that all too often, their designs result in a product that may not be fully accessible or usable for everyone, especially for some in our community.
When trying to get your hands on a working appliance, in my view it’s not all bad. There are some stores that go the extra mile. They may have some models plugged in so you can at least turn them on and off and change some of the settings.
If you’re lucky enough to get to fiddle with menu options or talk to store employees–which I make a point of doing whenever I can because I like to know what’s out there–you can quickly find ways the manufacturer and distributor can do so much more. Some stores may have a person specialising in kitchen or laundry products. Some offer a home service where they will come and check out the space you have and look for products that might meet your needs.
Some manufacturers even have ‘experience centres’ where you can talk to a product specialist and try out some of their appliances. Guess what! Some even offer cooking sessions too and I’m all for that!
For me, Harvey Norman were great when looking for a new TV, washer and dryer, as they had models plugged in that I could explore. Noel Leeming offered a home service when we needed to replace our oven and dishwasher. They even arranged for us to visit one of their stores to see if I could use the oven. Plus the kitchen specialist showed me models that I had thought would not be accessible and to my astonishment, they were.
Both Miele and Fisher & Paykel have ‘experience centres’ where you can check out current and soon to be released products. The new Fisher & Paykel Centre in Auckland is great to just walk around as there is no pressure to buy. A great experience was the fact they actually don’t sell from the ‘experience centre’ they just demonstrate their appliances. If you’re looking to buy or have bought a new oven or hob, you can attend one of their cooking sessions.
The other development is the introduction of appliances where you can access them using WiFi or via an app on your Smartphone. As you can tell, you need to have WiFi and | or a Smartphone in the first place. Even when you do, let’s not forget that the app must be accessible and user-friendly to our community of people.
Staying entertained on our terms
Huge progress has been made in the area of home entertainment. Many TVs now have an accessibility menu including a screen reader, magnification options and they will support audio description. This is an area where Blind Citizens NZ has had significant impact with its advocacy over many years, calling for ways our community of people can access menu options and turn audio description on and off.
Streaming devices such as Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Google’s Chromecast with Google TV all have accessibility features such as magnification and a screen reader built in.
However, there is no guarantee that all apps will be accessible using these built in functions like the screen reader.
Unfortunately, paid TV services using a set top box still have a long way to go to catch up with streaming devices, whereas in the UK and USA, there are set top boxes that are accessible. Sky NZ has started rolling out a new set top box, which we are hearing about but don’t know yet how accessible it will be. So watch this space for an update.
Advocating for change
Manufacturers need to think more about everyone’s needs by making sure their appliances are accessible and usable by us all.
I follow what’s new to market in respect to appliances both here and internationally by subscribing to newsletters, monitoring websites and some YouTube channels. When I go looking for an appliance and find something that meets my needs, but I may not be able to use it, then I provide feedback to the manufacturer. I have also over the years suggested to manufacturers that they work with Blind Citizens NZ to get a more rounded view of the world and not just mine. From my own experiences, I don’t think obstacles are deliberately put in our way and I believe that we can make a difference in their thinking.
Internationally, the regulatory landscape is sparse, but there are moves by some appliance manufacturers to improve the overall design of their appliances to make them more usable for all.
Many manufacturers have worked alongside disabled people’s organisations such as Blind Citizens NZ, and other international organisations to come up with some fundamental principles to improve the accessibility of their appliances. However, I understand these are ad hoc for now–they are new, and may not be across all manufacturers or all of their product range.
Also, many overseas developments in this area aren’t yet available on our shores. For instance, Miele have released a washer in the UK and Europe that has tactile markings, great colour contrast and beeps and clicks but it’s not sold in Australia or New Zealand.
Some of us want our appliances to talk, while some of us want to be able to control them via a Smartphone or Smart Speaker, or perhaps a mixture of clicks, turns, and beeps. Regardless, there will be simple steps that manufacturers could do to make their appliances usable the minute they’re installed.
Some areas manufacturers need to be reminded about are:
- having an accessible user-guide;
- improved colour contrast for controls and visual displays;
- clicks for rotary knobs including a tactile pointer to identify when you’re back at the beginning of a cycle or at the top of the dial;
- beeps and tones where the volume can be adjusted;
- beeps and tones that indicate when you have reached the top or bottom of a menu, so you are not continually going around in a loop;
- ensuring all apps are accessible and provide local support for smart speakers.
In the blind community, we can support Blind Citizens NZ with its lobbying with local appliance designers so they incorporate features that will make their products accessible.
If you are on a Blind Citizens NZ email list, share information when you come across a great product or if you have had a great experience with a supplier. You can also leave information on Blind Citizens NZ’s National Feedback Line bulletin on TellMe, or send information through to the National Office. Many in our community have shared hints on how they used their new appliance, and how they have made it more usable for them. If only it was as simple as turning a knob and pushing start.
We should all be ready to make our needs clear to manufacturers and also give a thumbs up to stores that go the extra mile.