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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 September, 2004, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Students make washing machine talk
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter

Engineering students at an American university have modified a washing machine to make it more accessible to people with visual impairments by giving it a voice.

Photo of Michael Hudson
Michael Hudson has a new passion for doing the washing
The engineering researchers were set the task because more and more appliances use push buttons and LEDs rather than old-fashioned rotating programme selectors.

The team at Michigan State University, under the guidance of Professor Erik Goodman, was asked to develop a prototype of a machine that would be accessible to anyone with sight problems.

"We asked Whirlpool if they'd be willing to donate a device and they gave us one of their most up to date machines to work on," Prof Goodman told BBC News Online.

They built a circuit board that would give speech output each time one of the machine's buttons was pressed.

A status button was also included which gives speech output from all of the machine's settings.

Exciting laundry

The new invention is now being tested by a blind couple, Michael and Carla Hudson.

Mr Hudson is the director of the university's resource centre for disabled students.

"I'm so excited about the technology that it's brought a whole lot of energy, from my perspective, to doing the laundry!" he said.

"My wife loves it, partly because it's a really good machine and technologically because it gives her the confidence to know that she has all the settings right."

In the coming university semester, Professor Goodman is putting another team to work on modifying the matching Whirlpool tumble dryer.

"This time we'll be seeking to develop something that's more 'manufacturable'. The original product that was developed was more of a bolt-on solution," he said.

Prof Goodman says that manufacturers should take account of accessibility in their original designs - that way products can be made useable by people with all sorts of disabilities at little or no extra cost.

"Appliances also have to be accessible to an increasingly ageing population, so more and more people are going to be demanding these things."

Michael Hudson thinks that engineers have traditionally thought visually and have developed their ideas around that one mode of operation.

"They never think, 'what would I do if?' It's a case of taking the time of putting yourself in somebody else's situation."

But Mr Hudson does not wish to turn back the clock, saying he welcomes the increasing use of digital interfaces.

But manufacturers could make their products universally accessible if they thought about it from the outset.

"When these things are designed sound output is often built-in. They just need to think of a way of making those beeps meaningful to anyone who can't see the lights."

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