Shopping for a smart device as a blind person

How would you go about buying a new washing machine?

You would probably count your money and buy the best one you can afford. Or, if you hate reading specifications and reviews and comparing parameters, you just choose the first one that seems suitable for your needs.

Forget about these methods if you are blind. When you are blind, you have one question: “Will I be able to use the machine on my own?” All the fancy features and cutting-edge designs of contemporary washing machines do not matter if you can’t use them. Price matters of course, but the longer you are blind, the more you discover that accessible home devices are either very cheap and very low quality, or they are expensive. I learned this lesson a few years ago when I was buying an inductive cooker. After a few days of research, I discovered that from the total inventory of five different brands, only two models might have been relatively accessible – the most expensive designer’s cooker and a much cheaper standard model.

The situation would be easier, though still frustrating, if you could limit your choices to accessible models and choose the one that suits you best. The main problem, however, is figuring out which devices are accessible to a blind person. Accessibility, in this context, doesn’t mean an ability to use every available feature—just an ability to turn the device on and off and select the mode. You cannot learn how accessible the device is by reading its description on the store’s web page. The manual (if the manufacturer provides it online) does not help either. Eventually, you may learn that sounds can be turned off and on, but this doesn’t mean much.

Visiting a shop in-person does not help much either, because the only thing you can usually do there is touch the machine, not test it. Of course, touching does helps. If you are not able to feel buttons, or if there are numerous touch controls too close to each other, or if while turning the knob, you cannot feel mode changes, odd are you won’t be able to use the machine at all. However, even if the machine passes your tactile test, it does not automatically mean it is accessible. This is just the first step in the purchasing process. With a small number of models available in analogue shops (when compared to availability online), your choice is very limited. Store clerks are usually not extremely helpful either. But I cannot blame them; they probably haven’t dealt with this issue before.

If you don’t like the controls of any of the devices you found in-store, you can decide to instead pay more and buy a smart washing machine. Smart devices can be operated via an app on your mobile phone. Many smart devices can be controlled by smart speakers as well, such as Amazon Echo or Google Home. Inaccessible controls aren’t a problem if you can use an app to do your washing. A luxury for many becomes a necessity for you.

But the commands for smart speakers are usually limited to the basics, and the app for the smartphone may be inaccessible to a screen reader. So, the story repeats. You don’t choose a machine; you choose an accessible app. But finding out if the app for a washing machine can be used with a screen reader is not easy, because to test the app you need to have a washing machine connected to the device. If you already have another smart device of a certain brand and the app is accessible, you can assume any new smart devices from that brand will have similar accessibility (though that is not always the case); but if you are buying your first smart device, there are a lot of unknowns. It’s a catch-22 situation—you cannot test the app, because you don’t have a device, and you cannot buy the device, because you don’t know if the app is accessible.

As you may have already guessed, I was recently in need of a new washing machine and went through all the painful steps. Having found nothing usable in-store, I decided to purchase a smart device. I selected three brands which had apps with promising descriptions, and I asked about their accessibility for TalkBack (a screen reader for Android). I sent my questions to the manufacturers/vendors and to the blind community. From the community, I learned that one of the manufacturers was making a significant effort to make their products accessible in the U.S. On the same day, I got a response from the same company in Europe that their app was totally inaccessible. The second company told me that their app worked with a screen reader for Android. The third company let me know that they were forwarding my question to another department, and then there was silence.

From a whole world of washing machines, I was left with one option. I bought the device. After the machine was unpacked and connected, it turned out that to use the app I must first turn on the machine and select the Remote-Control option. This is an easy task if you have physical buttons, but this machine had only touch controls, totally indistinguishable from the washing machine’s surface. Fortunately, the controls were not close to each other so, with patience, I was able to find the necessary ones.

The app can be used with a screen reader to a reasonable degree, but there are basic accessibility issues (e.g. information about pre-selected washing modes is not accessible, so you need to select the parameters manually each time you wash), which require a blind user to spend much more time on the app than a sighted user. It also requires a lot of patience. If the manufacturer sent the app to its accessibility team and/or conducted user testing with blind users, a lot of these issues could be fixed.

Still, I’m happy with my purchase.

By the way, a few days after I bought the machine I got a call from the third company. They let me know that their machines work well with TalkBack and that their app can be tested with a virtual machine. Well… too late…

Conclusion and appeal

Buying a washing machine, a dish washer, a vacuum cleaner, a stationary bike or any other home device is almost always a lottery for a blind person. You may increase your odds of an accessible purchase by conducting strenuous research, but you can never be sure that you won’t be unpleasantly surprised. Your odds could be even better if the manufacturers and vendors took into account the needs of blind people. Of course, people with other disabilities should also not be forgotten, and their situations are often similar.

If you are the manufacturer:

  • Make sure your designers understand the needs of people with various disabilities.
  • If you have an accessibility team, ensure it is engaged in the development of new products. If you don’t have one, create it or cooperate with a company that provides accessibility consultancy and audits (such as AccessibilityOz).
  • Include people with disabilities in user testing. Ensure various disabilities are represented.
  • Include information about the accessibility of your product in manuals, descriptions and marketing materials.
  • Make your support team aware of all the accessibility features available in your product.

If you are a vendor:

  • Make sure your online store is WCAG compliant.
  • Provide information about the accessibility of the products you sell.
  • Train your staff so that they are aware of the needs of people with disabilities and know how to provide basic support.
Post by Rafal Charlampowicz, 27 January 2021.

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