Designing With the ADA in Mind

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A FirstBuild Design Innovations Field trip

By Corinne Clements

Recently, Julia & I went to a FirstBuild presentation & hands on demonstration of design innovations that make Major Appliances more accessible for people with physical disabilities. FirstBuild is backed by GE Appliances, a Haier company. The FirstBuild microfactory crowdsources design ideas to create small batches of consumer products. They are deeply based in the Maker Movement, and took their inspiration from Louisville’s own makerspace, LVL1. Check out our post from last summer, where Julia and I explored the Maker Movement, visited LVL1’s workshop and spoke with a former president of LVL1.

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Range hood 2Designing with the ADA in mind

FirstBuild was offering a look into work being done to make major appliances more ADA complaint, whether through add-ons to modify existing appliances, or new features that could be introduced. From 3D printing new handles for refrigerators to more complex improvements (such as range hood motion sensors) different approaches to accessibility were tested by members of the disabled community.

Some of the products we saw tested included:

  • A range hood that was both voice powered through Amazon Echo and included gesture controls.
    • One of the ADA advocates pointed out that the location of the gesture controls would not work for wheelchair-using individuals, and the engineers immediately started asking about which locations would be more accessible.
    • Corinne’s thoughts: I liked how it was voice activated in addition to being motion sensitive, which is a popular feature these days. That popularity with “mainstream” consumers could make it more widely available and affordable for those who need it most.
    • Julia’s thoughts: Brilliant! I look forward to seeing the progress on the range hood from points people in the community made- will it recognize lateral and medial movement? Will it turn on when someone walks past it or will be there a hold time?
  • A (GE, naturally) washer and dryer pair with voice alerts indicating both cycle and remaining time in a cycle
    • Corinne’s thoughts: I found this one interesting, because they used programming already found within the washer & dryer to work in tandem with a raspberry pi and speaker.
    • Julia’s thoughts: I think this innovation answered what we heard the community say they needed, to make these appliances audible and tactile. The ending consensus was back to basics, a lot of sentences started with “I like how in the old days all you needed to do was [flick, turn, hear] a [switch, knob, click]. The washer makes use of both sensations.”
  • A front-load dryer that had both a 3D printed handle to make it easier to open and could also tilt forward at the push of a button.
    • Corinne’s thoughts: I fully admit, I gasped when I saw this feature. It’s so clever! From what I understood, they used springs and levers like those you find in reclining chairs.
    • Julia’s thoughts: Manufacturers recently seem to be missing the boat by adding too many complex features that go unused on major and small appliances. The engineering on this FirstBuild dryer did the opposite. It focused on the basic utility of unloading the dryer through the tilt at its base.
  • A refrigerator, using 3D printed handles on the doors, as well as hinged shelving that could be pulled out towards users, and up or down depending on their relative position- i.e. a bottom freezer shelf pulled up and out towards the user, or fridge shelves pulled down and out.
    • Corinne’s thoughts: This was another feature I thought would perform well for more “mainstream” consumers. I could see it being popular with families, making it easier to load up the fridge and to access fresh foods.
    • Julia’s thoughts: Watching the motion of the shelving units and crisper brought two thoughts into my head- function over form, and keeping it simple. The innovation at FirstBuild came down to simple machines and their motion- levers, inclined planes, and hinges- using the mechanical advantage to add to existing model appliances. This refrigerator uses the basics of mechanics rather than advanced tech to make it more accessible. I love this movement, thinking outside the box while maintaining realistic usage.


After previewing and testing various solutions for making appliances more accessible, the real work began. The engineers working on these projects wanted to know what “hacks” people used to Refrigerator 2navigate appliances that did not take disabilities into account. The answers ranged from opening the crisper drawer in the fridge to catch dropped objects to unplugging the range to ensure the oven was turned off. The engineers were impressed with the ingenuity of some solutions, but concerned with some unsafe “hacks”, such as placing a hand onto the burners of a smoothtop range. Eventually, they came up with an idea for an ADA themed hackathon and/or an ADA award at a future hackathon, to provide more safe solutions for disabled consumers. The engineers also asked about what features would be most helpful. Some of the suggestions included:

  • An emphasis on tactile feedback- clicky knobs over touchscreens
  • Apps designed to be used alongside accessibility apps on smartphones
  • Eye-movement sensors- it was noted that Samsung’s UI has a very strong performance with eye-motion sensors

Challenges & what can mainstream manufacturing do

The designers and engineers at FirstBuild are doing the same research we’ve been doing for years – identifying the target and collecting their opinions on how they interact with the manufacturer’s products.  Many of the solutions being examined were aftermarket add-ons for products, not necessarily features that would be included in appliances from the beginning. However, as we focus on the accessibility market, it is important to understand a few key constraints:

  • it’s important to consider that no two disabilities are exactly alike. A solution that works for one individual may not work for someone else. Starting with accessibility designing for the most people will have the biggest bang for the buck, but don’t forget about less common disabilities while designing specific features [in other words, if you can spend just a couple more bucks to make it reach 90% instead of just 50%, you should].
  • Cost is always going to be a factor- a lot of ADA compliant appliances are also extremely expensive- which is not good when the unemployment rate for disabled individuals is twice as high as it is for people without disabilities.
  • Don’t forget aesthetics! Integrate good looks and compliance for great products! I was reminded of one of tenets of a web design and development class I took: accessible design is good There’s no reason a product can’t help you out and look good while doing it!

It may be beneficial for Major Appliance manufacturers to start designing products with disabilities in mind, though. Thinking about aging as its own disability provides a glimpse into the opportunity of this market.  Approximately 10,000 people turn 65 every day in America. As people strive to age in place, they will need appliances that account for limited mobility, eyesight, and other challenges that old age brings.