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Accessible Coffee Brewing!

January 8, 2005 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

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!

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5 opinions on “Accessible Coffee Brewing!

  1. Alas, what you say is all too true. Not only are there trends toward inaccessibility, but some of those trends can be positively dangerous. An obvious example is the trend toward flat “cook tops” for stoves in place of the traditional burner as such. Many modern electric stoves just consist of a flat surface into which the heating elements are embedded. This is very nice from a cleaning standpoint since a pot on the burner can’t drip its contents through the gaps in the burner. No more pulling out burners and drip pans for cleaning. Unfortunately, this design can make it very difficult for a blind person to tell just where to place a pot for heating its contents. As well, it can be more difficult to tell what parts of the cooking surface will be hot and therefore places not to touch.

    I don’t know how we can best agitate for change. My understanding is that there is a movement afoot to try and devise a standard for development of appliances that will adapt themselves for accessibility when a blind person (or other person with special needs) approaches them with a special remote control-style unit in hand. This remote unit would do things like reporting indicators on the appliance in an accessible form and providing an interface for the blind user to “talk” to the appliance via the remote rather than via the inaccessible controls on the unit itself. I believe the current schemes being investigated tend to use infrared along the same lines as is used in TV remotes. The argument is that it’s prohibitively expensive to build a bunch of accessible alternative interface stuff into every appliance, but that, if appliances support some sort of flexible protocol over infrared, then much of the accessibility can be off-loaded to the remote gadget the special needs person can take with him/her. I heard Greg Vanderheiden of the Trace Research Center speak of this technique as what he considered the most likely method to succeed in the years ahead. This was a few years ago, so perhaps technology has somewhat progressed in unforeseen ways with the advent of Bluetooth and such. I note that the Trace site is now espousing something called EZ Access which seems to be more of a “built-in” solution with special accessibility functionality built right into products. I have to admit, though, that I haven’t seen an EZ Access device in a store yet.

  2. I agree with the comments posted above regarding accessible appliances.

    Fortunately I have appliances with analog controls. They are around 8 years old and still work well. I dread the day when any of them will break down and become un repairable.

    I think that legislation is the best way to pursue the accessibility issue. Let me draw an example from the communications industry. In the mid 60’s 99% of television sets were not equipped with facilities for UHF reception. The Federal Communications Commission mandated that sets manufactured after a specific date must have this capability despite the fact that 95% of viewers had no UHF signals receivable at their locations. Even the broadcast industry at the time wasn’t interested in UHF. There was virtually no market. It was mandated never the less. It took almost two decades for a viable market to develop.

    Business will always use the niche market argument. It’s an argument that is difficult to counter. If you view it from strict economics and bottom line it is correct. Corporations are in business to make a profit and provide products and services to consumers. Keeping things in the black with profit margins high is what it’s all about. I run a business. I know. This is why accessibility legislation is absolutely imperative. despite the niche market argument. Getting UHF capability in a television set is trivial compared to a group of people potentially being denied the use of appliances that permit them to do the most basic and necessary functions of living independently.

    If the government could mandate every television manufacturer to build in added features in sets there is no reason that accessibility legislation can’t be implemented. The trick is to convince the legislators to go down this path. It’s the right thing to do.

    Dave Marthouse

  3. What I find more difficult is measuring water to the amount of coffee I want to make and as the sole person drinking it, I don’t want to make a lot and then not be able to finish it. It took me a long time to find out that Farberware makes a percolator where the water lines are tactile on the inside of the pot. So, I am getting one, but at an expense that is double of what the cheap Mr. Coffee is.

    Otherwise, I continue to measure by using a glass or mug.

  4. I agree with the above. AS well, ever try to find a coffee maker with raised lines on the water reservoir so you don’t have to have several coffee makers, one for yourself, one for company because it makes more coffee. The Farberware percolator is the only one I know with raised markings for the water level indicator. I don’t know of any drip makers that have them and am on the prowl looking for one.

  5. Well I have a flat cook top and I am blind myself and find no problems putting the pots on the burners. Nor do I have a problem knowing it’s hot or not since they heat up quickly.

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