Posted on Friday September 6, 2019
In summer 1981 between my fifth and sixth grade years, my parents and I visited my oldest sister Kathi in Colorado. She had a microwave oven, and her kids who were in grade school could use it to cook or reheat foods. Kathy thought it would be good for me also, as it would be safer than a stove.
Later that summer Mom and Dad bought one.
Although not the panacea originally thought as, the microwave is still quite useful I use it almost every day. The model I’d been using from 2001-2018 was the Panasonic mid sized model, though I had to buy a second one after the first one died in 2014 but hey 12 years isn’t bad.
Still one problem for blind people with just about any microwave though, is that they have flat panels so if you’re blind it was hard to know where the buttons were. Many of us found ways to braille labels and put them on to the microwave panels. Braille takes up a lot of space though, so some of us also , used Highmarks, or fabric paint, which is much cheaper, to save space; but there was only so much room. This meant not all of the more advanced features or any features selected from a menu were usable unless memorized.
There were talking microwave ovens made specifically for blind people to use, but they were significantly more expensive, costing as much as $400, and often hard to find. Some of them also didn’t have as many features or were lower powered.
Then last summer Amazon announced their Amazon Basics microwave oven, and you could control it with any of their Amazon Echo devices.
I read reviews when they came out, but sadly many people thought it was silly or only a novelty. Why control something with your voice when the buttons are right there. They seemed not to think about how much more convenient it might be for someone with a disability, or even for someone without any disability at all. They also mentioned that the Amazon microwave was under powered, and it is at only 700 wats, and it is also smaller, so it may not serve a family of more than 2 people very well, but it’s a start. With that in mind I still felt it was an ok experiment.
It showed up, I plugged it in, and it configured itself. Because I had already configured an Amazon echo device, it knew my wifi network, and once on there, it also set the correct time. Awesome, now my sighted friends won’t have to tell me that the clock isn’t set anymore.
I still had a friend mark the microwave with fabric paint though, and one day when there was an internet outage I had to press the buttons like an animal. Most of the time though, , unless in a phone call, I control it with my voice.
One can say things like “Alexa, Cook microwave for 3 minutes” and it will do that, you can also say “at power x” where x is from 1 to 10. I also had marked the popcorn bacon defrost and reheat buttons on previous microwaves I’d owned, but this was about the most a blind person can do with most models.
With the Amazon model, you can say things as advanced as, “Alexa, Cook 8 ounces of broccoli,” “cook one cup, (or bowl), of soup;” “cook one cup of coffee. saying heat also works. baking a potato also works. There are more commands, I’ve only mentioned a few here.
One might say that’s cool and all, but the expensive talking microwaves specifically for the blind could tell you how much time was left in cooking. That’s true, but you can get the same on the Amazon microwave as well. You can also add more time while it’s cooking; so if you say “Alexa add 1 second to microwave,” it will tell you something like “cooking 45 seconds on power 10.”
It is true that the Amazon basics microwave is under powered, so it takes a bit longer to cook things, but at the end of the day, it’s really not that big of a deal. It is also quite small, large dishes may not fit. I still call my experiment a success with a few miner caveats.
General Electric also has a model of microwave for about $150 that can be controlled by an Amazon device. It is larger, 0.9 cubic feet, and runs at up to 900 wats, so also not as under powered. It also has a feature where you can scan barcodes on frozen food packaging with your smartphone, after which your phone will look up cooking directions and send them to the microwave. This in the reviews I read seemed not to work so well, but hey probably future models will get better.
Even if one bought the GE model and an Amazon Echo Dot for around $200 , they could have a talking microwave for about half the price than one of those previously mentioned talking models specifically for the blind. As I have said, mainstream device plus talking cell phone, or in this case Amazon echo device, equals talking, or accessible mainstream device. Seemingly novelty features to many are game changing accessibilities for others. Designing with inclusion from the start, is always the best way to go.
Appended on April 11, 2020
Shortly after I wrote this article, Amazon announced their Amazon smart oven. It costs $250 so still less expensive than some of those talking microwaves made for the blind, and does way more. Yes, it can be a microwave, but it can also be a food warmer, a convection oven, and an air fryer. It is also bigger, 1.5 cubic feet. It is very cool.