2006 Conference General Sessions




Anne Taylor

National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore MD 21230

Day Phone: (410) 659-9314 ext. 2413
Fax: (410) 685-5653
Email: ataylorcnfb.org

Presenter #2

Mike Tindell

National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore MD 21230

Day Phone: (410) 659-9314 ext. 2234
Fax: (410) 685-5653

Email: mtindellcnfb.org

In the past, using non-visual alternative techniques to independently operate consumer electronic devices was a minor concern for blind individuals. With the introduction of advanced electronic technology into the consumer electronics arena, these alternative techniques are rapidly becoming ineffective. Because of the implementation of electronic controls on current consumer electronic devices-devices that are necessary to maintain the common American standard of living-accessibility is increasingly becoming a concern for all blind individuals.

We use the words “accessible” and “usable” to signify that through additional modifications to the controls supplied by the manufacturer or a technique of additional steps learned in addition to the technique for operation suggested by the manufacturer, a blind person can successfully use and take advantage of the functionality of a consumer electronic device. It is the finding of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute that the loss of options for accessible consumer appliances grows stronger every day. For example, a recent trip to a major appliance store revealed an increase in the implementation of flat and inaccessible electronic controls in currently produced dishwashers. Until now, dishwashers were among the more accessible home appliances.

Observations and Challenges to Electronic Controls
During the 2005 Annual Convention of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), we held our first Accessible Home Showcase. Observations by more than 500 blind and visually impaired individuals possessing a wide range of cognitive ability, fine motor skills, and tactual perception revealed that certain control types and configurations presented challenges to accessibility-and some that proved insurmountable. Specific control features that were inaccessible or very difficult to use include featureless touch panels, dynamic menus, rotating control settings, and reset mechanisms. Here are some of the observations made by our visitors as they examined the array of home appliances.

Featureless touch panel controls lack any tactile control surfaces which can orient the non-visual user to the location of controls, On large expanses, such as those found on slide-in ranges, alternatives such as key guards are impractical. For increased usability, all surfaces should contain at least a contrasting texture to indicate a specific control, and it is necessary to have a reasonable distance separating these specific regions of controls, creating identifiable control locations.

Dynamic menus are especially common on microwave ovens. In some instances a menu prompt is the single means the manufacturer has provided for accessing important features such as the power level. For accessibility and usability, all dynamic menu prompts should be directly accessible by a control on the front panel. Furthermore, all selections must provide confirmation via a clearly identifiable audible signal. In the case of error conditions, an error should be identifiable by a contrasting audible signal.

Rotating menus and control settings are problematic. This type of control is commonly found in air conditioners and laundry equipment. It is a mechanism in which a control knob or button visually moves the viewer through a list of items on a screen, and repeats the list endlessly unless the user can see that the choices are being repeated, and chooses an appropriate item from the list. In order to orient the non-visual user, a solution to this control is that all menus, lists of options, and choices are signaled by a unique tone. Furthermore, each click of the rotary control needs to be accompanied by an audible signal.

Finally, devices lacking a reset mechanism which will restore the unit back to a default setting create problems of access. Devices which cannot be reset are much less useful than those which have an easy way to return to a known set of values or default settings. A user who becomes disoriented in menus cannot retrace the steps, or begin again unless a reset feature is available. It is recommended that an easy to use and clearly identifiable reset control be made available, and that this control is documented in user instructions.

Kitchen appliances include but are not limited to ranges, ovens, and microwave units, common machines essential to modern life! Obviously one must be able to prepare sustenance in order to maintain a high standard of nutrition and health. In the past, Microwaves were very accessible and usable for blind individuals. Common non-visual alternative techniques were to add Braille or identifiable marks on control buttons. However, with the implementation of flat touch-panel controls and elaborate dynamic menus, these devices are becoming increasingly difficult to use; alternative techniques are insufficient.

In the case of ranges and ovens, flat control surfaces, dynamic menus, along with few tactile features create controls which exclude blind individuals from the possibility of operating these devices independently.

Access to laundry room equipment in public buildings and coin laundries is another category for concern. The inaccessible nature of this equipment is especially significant since those who must use it are the least likely to have options to arrange for alternative equipment or to install non-visual modifications. The same inaccessible features are found in home laundry equipment.

The majority of front-loading washers and dryers with menu options are unpredictable. There is no effective way for a blind individual to follow a sequence of steps to operate these devices.

The barriers that these inaccessible features present in major consumer appliance categories, even for the most motivated and computer-savvy blind individuals, are everywhere in the marketplace. It is no longer the case that a blind person might confidently shop in the normal stores found in his or her community, purchase, take home, and use a consumer electronic device.

The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute has developed a plan to address this issue. We will provide information on those appliances that are deemed usable through various means of non-visual access, and this information will be available to all interested persons free of charge on our website. This information will be collected by speaking with blind individuals throughout the United States and gathering their experiences in working with all major categories of consumer electronic devices. We will learn what modifications are added and what non-visual techniques are employed by blind persons operating various electronic devices and control types. We will share all information that will be of practical use to other blind persons.

This data collection will assist in guiding the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute in our Accessible Home initiative. This initiative will focus on providing user feedback to leading manufacturers in the consumer electronics arena. Feedback will focus on ways in which consumer electronics devices can be made more accessible and usable for blind persons. Additionally, one of the goals for this initiative is to find mechanisms suitable for those who are deaf-blind.

The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute believes that it is essential that blind people are able to continue to lead full and productive lives, not excluding their home environment. The inability to function independently in one’s home environment impacts all other aspects of life including education, employment, well-being, and safety. We will continue to monitor, assess, and work on solving these problems.


Chong, Curtis, “Commercial Technology for the Blind.”
Braille Monitor [no volume number listed] (June 1996): 298-302. http://www.nfb.org/bm/bm96/brlm9606.htm#3

_______ “The Current State of Technology for the Blind and the Challenge for the Twenty-first Century.” Braille Monitor, Vol. 43, No. 1 (January 2000): 24-30. http:/!www.nfb.orc/bm/bm00/bm0001 /bm000l 04.htm

Hodges, Brad. “Talking Turkey about Household Appliances and Consumer Electronics: Crisis for the Blind at the Big Box Store.” Braille Monitor, Vol. 47, No. 11 (December 2004): 834-840. www.nfb.org/bm/bm04/bm0412/bm041205.htm

______ “Crisis at the Big Box Store, Part 2.” Braille Monitor, Vol. 48, No. 2 (February 2005): 92-100. http:/Iwww. nfb.orq/bm/bmO5/bm0502/bmO5O2tc.htm

______ “Consumer Electronics: Crisis at the Big Box Store, Part 3.” Braille Monitor, Vol. 48, No. 6 (June 2005): 396-407.
www. nfb,org/bm/bmO5/bm0506/bm050608.htm

Go to previous article
Go to next article
Return to 2006 Table of Contents

Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright