Appliance manufacturers need to do more to service the disabled

In this special feature, which first appeared in Appliance Retailer magazine, Tim Lince looks at whether disabled Australians are being catered to by appliance manufacturers.

According to a government survey from 2009, nearly 19 per cent of Australians suffer a physical disability, which works out to 2.2 million people across the country.

This prevalence, which has increased by 500,000 since 1993, means demand for accessible home appliances is an urgent and growing requirement. But are the big manufacturers providing all the necessary functions needed for people with disabilities?

Tim Noonan, an accessibility and usability designer who wrote a Human Rights Commission report into accessible appliances, said there was plenty of work to do.

“People with disabilities and older Australians are the overlooked consumers of appliance manufacturers,” Noonan said. “The Australian population is ageing and, in turn, more and more people are going to develop arthritis and any number of other physical disabilities.

“They’ll also have the money to spend on new appliances, but won’t be able to use many of them independently or comfortably.”

His report was scathing reading for appliance technology designers, with Noonan saying “it’s quite amazing and disappointing that the younger designers of today persist in designing a world and the things in it, and in many cases those things cannot be used by the generations that came before them — this is the heart of the problem.

“Too often, when designing products, attention is given to a narrow notion of who will use the products, with little thought given to the numerous groups of people that the product design will exclude.”

There’s some hope in the new generation of touch screen devices, he noted, because, “in 2007, the first iPhone was just being released and that’s proving to be a really important display and remote control device for those with sensory disabilities or limited physical strength”.

The “Disability Dichotomy”, as the report calls it, is another continuing problem, with manufacturers stuck in the mindset that “there are ‘people’ who use standard products, and there are ‘disabled people’ who need and should use ‘special devices’”.

“The presence of these ‘special’, and often very expensive, solutions sends out a confusing message to mainstream designers and manufacturers that there isn’t a great need for them to adopt more inclusive design approaches,” Noonan wrote in the report. “So the challenge is to promote people with disabilities from being a special and different group, to being considered equal consumers in the general marketplace.”

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Suggested solutions

One person hoping to be considered an “equal consumer” is Bruce Mumford, a NSW-based freelance writer who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1990.

He said that there are a number of improvements he would make based on his own experience with home appliances.

“Microwave ovens would be much easier to use for those of us in wheelchairs if they had doors that swung up from the bottom rather than to the side,” Mumford suggested. “That way there would be less chance of knocking things off the benchtop while trying to balance other things in your lap.”

He also said that a remote control for opening/closing appliance doors and adjusting settings “would be very handy”, ovens with upward-swinging doors and side buttons “to reduce the risk of burning”, fridges with no high shelves and freezers on the side rather than the top of a fridge “would be ideal” for wheelchair users living by themselves.

“Some of these appliances might already be available, but they tend to be quite a bit more expensive than the standard designs and therefore beyond the reach of most disabled people,” he said. “So if they could be made cheaper or available at a discount to the disabled that would be quite a bonus.”

There are some products that Mumford has simply not been able to find on the market.

“Most battery drills are far too heavy for me and too difficult to get together,” he explained. “I wanted a small battery operated pen-like one, but can’t find one anywhere — the nearest I could get is a small Bosch hand-held one, which is quite good.”

“Also, a telephone which could easily rest against your shoulder and ear — much like the ones used in call centres — would be very handy, as well as ones with big buttons which are easy to press. Telstra makes one but it is only partially satisfactory, and its ‘disabled’ mobile phone is a joke.”

A design for all?

As one of the largest appliance manufacturers in the world, Bosch and Siemens Home Appliances is at the forefront of this accessibility demand.

Australian brand manager for the company, Aleks Efeian, acknowledged there is an “increasing demand for user-friendly appliances that enable older and disabled people to live more independently”.

“BSH Home Appliances takes pride in developing high quality products that every consumer can use, irrespective of their abilities,” he said. “This ‘design for all’ approach is a fundamental consideration when developing and designing Bosch and Siemens appliances.”

He offered a number of examples, including the recently launched Bosch HomeProfessional washing machine and dryers with operating instructions in extra large print and the TFT clear-text displays on selected Siemens built-in ovens that “provide a clear view from any angle”.

For people with motor skill or muscular impairments, he suggested the Bosch FlexInduction cooktop with its sensor touch control panel that allows users to activate the cooktop and change settings “with the simple touch of a button”.

Niche solutions

Although the “increased demand” for accessible appliances may see some cut through in the future, there are still solutions if you know where to look.

‘Technical Aids for the Disabled’ has a team of volunteers that modifies or creates “assistive devices that are not commercially accessible” and is available in most Australian states. ‘The Dreamfit Foundation’ is a West Australian not-for-profit that also modifies existing products “using innovative engineering to fulfil dreams and overcome the challenges and frustrations of people with disabilities”.

There’s also Global Kitchen’s Disabled Kitchen brand, which takes the opposite approach to the problem, designing kitchens around difficult-to-use appliances.

Disabled Kitchen’s manager, Geoff Ross, said that its ‘Appliance Lift’ technology makes nearly all appliances accessible, and the New South Wales showroom has Australia’s only “fully-functioning disabled kitchen”.

Editor's Note: Those interested in learning more on this topic should read respected rival journalist Campbell Simpson's outstanding piece on televisions for the blind: Audio description TV trials off to a quiet start.

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