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Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working on a washer and dryer interface that will actually audibly communicate the selected setting. We believe it could have a great impact on the visually impaired community and possibly lead to voice-indication being used on other appliances as well.

Kate Herndon, Director of Educational Product Research, and Larry Skutchan, Director of Technology Product Research, at American Printing House for the Blind, inc. visited First Build on Thursday and toured the array of exciting innovations aimed at more universally designed concepts in major appliances. They saw some appliances connected to the Amazon Echo for voice command and feedback, talked about design guidelines, and saw the new accessibility box connected to washers and dryers in the space.

Purchasing a major appliance for a blind or low vision person is one of the most frustrating experiences imaginable, especially for someone who is totally blind. Blind people pride themselves on their hard won independence, and it is empowering to live with a disability like that yet still enjoy a meaningful, fulfilling life and career. There is more accessible information today than ever before in history, and there are thousands of successful blind people filling roles that the impartial observer might consider amazing. To the blind person, though, there is nothing amazing about it. It is about hard work, determination, and some standards that help ensure accessibility to public assets.

Coming home after a day of negotiating multimillion dollar contracts, teaching a college course on biology, or wrangling through complicated court cases can stop that confidence and independence dead in its tracks, though, when they cannot even operate their own washing machine or stove.

The previous generation of appliances worked well, because the controls were all analog, and if they did not already include a pointer, some homemade markings could always set things right. Most of today’s appliances’ controls are digital, and they provide little or no feedback about what is being selected. A trip to the store to purchase new appliances is frustrating, because there are generally almost no appliances that can be operated independently.

GE Appliances and FirstBuild are changing that. This innovative new approach to product design and lots of community feedback and participation led to the invention of a small box you connect to the port in most existing and all new GE major appliances. The box communicates with the appliance and announces the setting you selected on the electronic dial. The exact cost of the accessibility box is not yet known, but it should be low, and, even better for the tinkerer, the design and code, are all open source, so you can build it yourself or form clubs to build these for others.

All agreed that this kind of design makes for a much wider range of products that blind people can use, and just as importantly, applaud the steps taken toward designing products that anyone can use, no matter their abilities.

 

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