Commentary: On Making Household Appliances Accessible

Most people who are blind or visually impaired have figured out how to manage household appliances, which might not be entirely accessible. We might use special Braille or tactile stickers on our microwave or oven to label the different settings, for example. Buttons on a telephone or remote control keypad are often distinguishable by touch, making it much easier for us to memorize and learn the layout and function of each one. Today’s appliances, like televisions, DVD players and laundry machines include various features, which can only be accessed via a menu. For someone who can’t see the screen, navigating through the menus can be challenging at best, and often even impossible.

Like with a lot of things, technology promises to make household appliances more accessible to people with vision loss. Devices like Apple TV and Comcast’s Xfinity accessibility options have allowed those of us with visual impairments to access and navigate through the different menu selections independently. Other newly developed gadgets promise to help tackle the challenge of inaccessible appliances.

Jack DuPlessis, a teenager from Kentucky, recently created a smart device which makes laundry appliances ‘talk’, thereby helping users who are blind or visually impaired. The Talking Laundry module is an apparatus about the size of an external hard drive and functions simply by connecting it to a wall outlet and the back of a recent GE laundry appliance. It gives users audio feedback, including the remaining time in a washing or drying cycle, spin level and color settings. The young developer and technology enthusiast worked with students from the Kentucky School for the Blind to test the smart device, which may be a game changer in the near future.

Making household items accessible to those of us with disabilities is not only good business practice for developers and manufacturers, it is also becoming crucial more than ever before. Many people, particularly senior citizens, will acquire visual impairments or other disabilities given the aging of the baby boomer generation. These individuals will require the assistance of accessible devices in order to continue living independent and productive lives. While it is true that special devices, like talking watches and telephones with large buttons already exist, many of us with vision loss would like to see a day when all mainstream devices are accessible.

Adaptations can be as simple as including buttons with large print labels or tactile markings. Better yet, making devices with audio feedback, like the Talking Laundry module, can go a long way in improving accessibility. Today’s technology has a great potential of allowing manufacturers to do this and much more. By incorporating accessibility in their products, developers can increase business, while allowing people with disabilities to live more independent lives. That’s what I call a win-win for everyone! Kudos to Jack DuPlessis for his work on the Laundry Talking module. Without a doubt, this is a device that will prove to be useful to millions of individuals with vision loss.

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