Karen and I went shopping for a new coffeemaker. We’ve tried several models now but have not been very happy with their functioning and maintenance requirements. We have determined that we need a coffeemaker with a removable basket to facilitate loading the coffee and cleaning before the next use. Unfortunately, like other electronic appliances, shopping for a coffeemaker that is accessible and usable by a blind person is becoming more and more difficult.

Most coffeemakers on the market today incorporate advanced features such as a programmable timer that enables brewing to begin at a specific time each day. This programmability is provided by way of a digital display and sometimes also by flat buttons. Blind people can’t physically see in order to read the digital display and flat buttons provide no tactile controls we can use to operate the machine. In most cases, not only are we unable to take advantage of the product’s programmability, but we are also unable to use the product due to its inaccessible controls.

Currently, some nonprogrammable coffeemakers still exist. We just ordered the model AR10 manufactured by Mr. Coffee. It is simple to operate and features a removable basket. So, for the moment, our coffeemaker issue is resolved. Sadly, there remains a critical two part question in our minds. For how much longer will we be able to find a nonprogrammable coffeemaker, and will we ever see programmable coffeemakers that are accessible?

Jim McCarthy covers the issue of accessibility to home appliances in a December 2004 article entitled Nonvisual Access to Home Appliances in Voice of the Nation’s Blind, an online magazine published by the National Federation of the Blind. He points out that, in many cases, only the cheapest, lowest quality home appliances remain accessible and simple to operate. While appliances with fancy digital displays were once expensive, luxury items, they are now in the mainstream. Unfortunately, Mr. McCarthy goes on to talk about a dialogue between the blind and the home appliance industry to facilitate their working with us to creatively solve these accessibility issues. My personal experiences and those of many other blind people I know just don’t bode well for such a dialogue to take place and, even if it does, it probably won’t result in more accessible appliances.

As compared to sighted people, blind Americans represent a tiny portion of the population. We are reminded of this fact over and over whenever we ask for reasonable accomodations. Regardless of the form it takes or how the information is presented, we are told that we don’t count. Our low incidence population is constantly cited as a reason for allocating insufficient resources to deal with the issues of blindness. It is used to defend continued inaccessibility, lack of transportation options and all other reasons for not making accomodations necessary for our participation in society. This old argument will be trotted out again when the National Federation of the Blind tries to open a dialogue with the home appliance industry. Manufacturers will tell us that it is not cost effective to provide appliances that can be used by everyone, including those of us who happen to be blind. We’ll be told that sighted people are happy with the digital displays and flat controls. The sighted demand these features and they don’t need or want appliances that talk, use tones or do anything else that might make them more accessible to us. Making changes will negatively impact the bottom lines for these businesses. They are ultimately responsible to their shareholders. There is a dangerous, final conclusion to the use of this small market argument to justify continued lack of accessibility. Some say it is too radical to consider. I’ll save this for another time.

We must find ways to encourage or compel the home appliance industry and other companies to be more accessible. At this point, it seems our best hope is the growing population of the elderly, who will suffer a high incidence of health problems that will result in vision loss and even complete blindness. Most of these people will want to be able to go on living their lives as best they can. Their quality of life will become a greater mainstream concern. The executives of home appliance manufacturers and other companies should work with the blind community and others with disabilities to insure their products are universally accessible and usable to as many potential customers as possible.

Karen and I want to continue to be able to brew our coffee in the morning before running off to work. We don’t feel that is too much to ask. Some in the blind community tell us that, when something is inaccessible, we should just ask a sighted person for help. That doesn’t always work for many reasons which are too numerous to explain now. We live by ourselves. It is just the two of us. We don’t live with a sighted person. We don’t want to have to do that. That’s unacceptable. We want to be able to exercise the same independence and self-determination enjoyed by our sighted peers. There is simply going to be no sighted person around to help us brew coffee in the morning!

We simply can’t allow inaccessibility to stand unchallenged! What solutions are available to the manufacturers of home appliances and other electronics that provide the accessibility we require in a manner that is cost effective? We in the blind community should devise these solutions. We should then find ways to get electronics manufacturers to implement the solutions on a voluntary basis. Finally, if that doesn’t result in significant accessibility, we should find ways to compel business to simply do the right thing!