Designing for Your Lifespan

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When shopping for an appliance, the typical considerations are energy efficiency, affordability, attractiveness and size. But today's consumers and manufacturers are placing equal importance on another consideration: Ease of use.

They are looking beyond today, too, and considering how easy the appliance will be to operate when the consumer ages or becomes disabled. Some appliances, after all, have a life span of 20 years or more.

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Jan Jasper recently bought a stove with front-mounted control knobs, eliminating the need to reach over hot burners. Her old stove had controls in back.

"It's so much easier to use," said Jasper, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a cane and wheelchair. "I don't have to worry about burning myself."

Universal design, which meets the needs of people with diverse physical abilities, satisfies Americans With Disabilities Act standards. The percentage of Americans older than 50 is growing, and as the population ages, universal design becomes more important.

"People probably won't notice they have a product with universal design features, but they'll use it in a way that's more effortless," said Marc Hottenroth, industrial design leader for GE, a company that has made more appliances with easy-to-use features in recent years. He says many older appliances were poorly designed.

Migette Kaup, associate professor of interior design at Kansas State University in Manhattan, cited several appliance features that are difficult for people to use. A person using a wheelchair or cane, for instance, has to struggle to pull racks in and out of an oven that opens from the top.

Kaup, who teaches universal design in her classes, says some new appliances are easier to use because of universal design features. "That's refreshing because upper-body strength is the first thing to go for men and women as they age," she said.

Dishwasher drawers, Kaup says, eliminate the need to stoop. The drawers, made by companies such as Fisher & Paykel and Miele, are coming down in price. New refrigerator drawers have the same advantage, but they're still too expensive for the mainstream consumer, she says.

More microwaves have bigger numbers and scrolling guides to help people through the process. People who are visually impaired can get Braille kits from the manufacturers. Another solution, Kaup says, is placing raised-number stickers from an office supply store over the controls.

BETTER DESIGNED APPLIANCES

Dishwashers

• Dish drawers or a raised dishwasher are good for no-stoop, no-bend loading.

Washers & Dryers

• Look for front-mounted controls that can eliminate reaching.

• There's no need to stoop with raised platforms for front-loading machines.

• Look for drums that are tilted up to prevent excessive reaching.

Stoves & Ovens

• Look for a stove with front-mounted controls, which eliminate the need to reach over burners.

• Consider a smooth electric cooktop that allows easy movement of pots and pans and easy cleanup.

• Wall ovens should open from the side and be installed with the middle shelf at counter height.

Microwaves

• A countertop microwave (instead of a wall-mounted one) is best because it has a landing space for hot dishes and allows access for someone who uses a wheelchair.

Refrigerators

• A side-by-side, frost-free refrigerator/

freezer allows full access for everyone.

• Having a freezer drawer on the bottom is the second best option. It provides better access than having a freezer on top.

7 PRINCIPLES OF UNIVERSAL DESIGN

EQUITABLE USE: The appliance should be accessible and appealing to all in the home.

FLEXIBILITY IN USE: The appliance should allow for both right-hand and left-hand use, and accommodate people with functional limitations.

SIMPLE AND INTUITIVE: The appliance should be easy to understand and use.

PERCEPTIBLE INFORMATION: The appliance can accommodate people with impaired vision. It may have visual or audible cues for easy operation.

TOLERANCE FOR ERROR: The appliance has safety features, such as child locks.

LOW PHYSICAL EFFORT: The appliance controls can be activated with minimal pressure.

SIZE AND SPACE FOR APPROACH AND USE: The appliance is easily accessible to someone who uses a wheelchair. A tall person wouldn't have to bend or stoop extremely to use it.

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