[00:00:31] Sarah: Hello, listeners! Rebecca and I are glad to be back with you again for another episode of our podcast. It’s really hard to believe that we just had Thanksgiving! Even though our meals and family time probably looked a little different this year due to COVID, I’m sure many of you spent a lot of time in the kitchen, whether you were putting together a meal, turkey-related or not, or even just heating up a meal someone brought to you.
[00:00:58] I think we can all agree that the kitchen is really one of the most used spaces and many homes. Well, unless you eat out a lot, but still. Kitchen appliances are essential and need to function well for all people in the home, whether you’re a heat up kind of cook or enjoy making meals from scratch.
[00:01:15] We are currently working on a design project within our organization and our Design Advisors just finished reviewing the kitchen. Based on what we learned from their feedback. We discovered that the placements and types of appliances are really important to consider. And there are a lot of reasons why people feel one location is more functional than another.
[00:01:37] Rebecca: Definitely. When we asked our Design Advisors for feedback about the kitchen in general, they were really quick to point out many different issues of accessibility when it came to appliances. So we wanted to learn more. We’re planning to do different episodes on a variety of appliances in the future.
[00:01:55] But today we’re going to start with microwaves. We know not everybody uses them, but microwaves are a staple in most typical kitchen designs.
[00:02:04] Sarah: Yes, definitely. If you’re going to heat up those Thanksgiving leftovers.
[00:02:09] Rebecca: Exactly. So we reached back out to our Design Advisors team and ask them specifically about the ideal height and door opening type for a microwave that would be a good fit for the widest variety of people. So today we’re going to share some of the most crucial things that we learned from their responses.
[00:02:27] Let’s start with the question of height. There was a pretty clear consensus on this, didn’t you think, Sarah?
[00:02:34] Sarah: Yeah. Over the years, I think designers and builders have discovered that there are many heights to put a microwave and product companies are coming out with a lot of different variations on the microwaves.
[00:02:45] But most of our Design Advisors who have experience with disability themselves, or they may care for someone personally or professionally with a disability, they determined that having a microwave at the height of the countertop serves a wider range of people than mounted higher over the stove or under the counter.
[00:03:06] They felt that having it at a countertop height provides for the least amount of exclusion, as it allows children, people using wheelchairs, little people, and those who are average heights to easily reach while seated or standing. This height also makes it easy to slide food out and onto the counter, which could be safe and also easy for people who may have decreased strength.
[00:03:32] So Rebecca, can you share what the other locations people could typically see microwaves in the kitchen?
[00:03:39] Rebecca: Sure.
[00:03:40] So, other heights that we were curious about were overhead like over the stove, which I know is a really typical location, and then also lower down nested among other lower cabinetry.
[00:03:53] And neither of these locations would really be as widely accessible as that countertop height, according to our Design Advisors. Overhead microwaves can be hard to reach and therefore, potentially dangerous if you’re reaching up without really being able to see what hot food you’re reaching for as someone who’s relatively petite, I can certainly attest to this.
[00:04:15] Additionally, if you have decreased shoulder strength or range of motion, or if you’re seated, those high microwaves can present a significant challenge.
[00:04:24] Sarah: Oh, definitely. I’ve seen Scott grab random utensils to help fetch something out of a high microwave. And he really can’t heat up anything with liquid in it, like drinks or soups, without risk of burning himself when trying to bring it down. This is also difficult for people who are shorter and have decreased hand function.
[00:04:44] Rebecca: Yeah. As far as the lowered microwaves go though, on the other end, our Design Advisors also agreed that it might be awkward to reach down to retrieve food too. But this placement would be more widely usable than that raised placement nonetheless. Some Design Advisors also noted that this lowered placement may look tidier than a countertop microwave and take up less space.
[00:05:10] Sarah: Yes. I grew up in the days of microwave carts. So I get that statement of it looking tidier underneath the countertop than on top of it. But at countertop height, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be sitting on the counter.
[00:05:24] It could be built into some cabinetry too. Overall I think it’s really important to consider individual needs and the variety of people who may use a home. And while many people advocate for an under the counter microwave, some of our Design Advisors included, I could see where it would be difficult for some people to use it easily.
[00:05:43] A good point another design advisor mentioned was that many people often think that the lower, the better, especially when considering people that use wheelchairs. But it’s important to remember that when trying to make something universally designed, we need to focus on everyone who could use the space.
[00:06:01] And we can’t forget about people who are taller or those who struggle to bend down or even reach high or low. So somewhere in the middle seems the most universal. If the bottom of the microwave is around 30 to 34 inches in height, generally around the countertop height, then it would be easy for a person to slide things in and out of the microwave at chest height and reach forward to access them, which helps put them in a safe body position and also accommodates people who struggle to use their hands and arms.
[00:06:32] Rebecca: That’s a great point about sliding things in and out of the microwave. And it’s actually a really good segue into our next area of interest. And that is the microwave door opening. In exploring this topic with our Design Advisors, we learned that microwave doors that open to the side, as most do, are widely usable. For the majority of people, this type of door doesn’t create a lot of barriers. As our Design Advisors noted, this type of door swing allows people to safely position themselves squared-up, facing the microwave in order to access food, without having to rotate their trunk or torso. This configuration also lets people take food out and put it directly on the counter.
[00:07:14] With this type of door opening, people are able to get close to the microwave and that promotes safety when handling hot food.
[00:07:22] Sarah: There are also a few other door configurations we asked our Design Advisors about including doors that pull open, like a drawer, as well as those that pull down and open like an oven or toaster oven.
[00:07:35] Our Design Advisors explained that drawer microwaves could be difficult because they require things to be lifted out. This could be hard for those with limited strength, movement, or sensation in their hands to manipulate items safely, especially if they’re hot. Perceptual issues could make it hard for people to know what could fit in that type of drawer microwave as well.
[00:07:58] I actually had never thought of this point, which I found very interesting. Although there were some positive responses too. Drawers could be a good option for people who cannot manipulate door handles easily and it also brings the food items out to you versus you having to reach inside something, which could make it easier to reach things depending on someone’s abilities.
[00:08:22] Our Design Advisors felt that microwaves that open like traditional ovens actually put additional space in between the person and the hot food that they’re trying to access. This means they’re also reaching over a hot surface to grab the food, which is why ovens can be so difficult to use. We’ll get into that in another episode, I’m very sure. But overall, not many people preferred a microwave that opens like an oven.
[00:08:48] Rebecca: I think that makes perfect sense. I also know that some microwaves these days can even come with tap to open features and perhaps someday there will even be gesture-based microwaves, similar to automatic sinks in public bathrooms.
[00:09:02] But anyway, we also asked our Design Advisors about other important considerations when it comes to microwaves.
[00:09:08] And we got a lot of useful tips. Of course, it’s important to consider the types of handles and buttons when selecting a microwave. Thinking about how big it is, if it will fit your needs, and if it’s easy to open and use is basic microwave selection 101 as well. Specifically, though, a lot of our Design Advisors noted the importance of numbers and buttons that have a lot of contrast and large print to facilitate reading the options.
[00:09:36] Some microwave buttons can even have tactile differences for people who may have trouble visually perceiving what’s written on them.
[00:09:44] Sarah: A lot of these extra features in regard to the buttons and numbers our Design Advisors mentioned really aren’t common with your run of the mill microwaves. I know my grandfather really struggled to make my grandmother her oatmeal in the microwave because his glaucoma really made it difficult for him to see the buttons on the microwave.
[00:10:03] So being an innovative OT, we actually put raised dots and Velcro on the buttons that he used the most so that it would be easier for him to find the buttons he needed by feeling for those textures. I think it’s also essential for product manufacturers to really think about some of these extra details.
[00:10:23] How many times have you gone up to a microwave that’s not your typical microwave and had to stand there and look at it for a while to orient yourself? I think this is where collaboration and creativity really make a difference in making something aesthetically pleasing and ticking up a few notches on functionality.
[00:10:41] Rebecca: That is a fantastic point. And I really love that you brought that up. Bringing the human and user experience perspective into that design process for technology like this is exactly what got me interested in this area of work in the first place.
[00:10:56] Sarah: Yay. That’s so exciting. And it’s not just about people with disabilities, either. Making something universal means it would benefit everyone in the community.
[00:11:05] I’m going to share a few other important things that our Design Advisors mentioned about the placement of the microwave. They have felt that the process of using the microwave would be easier if it was located near the utensil drawer. That way, the tools you need for stirring the hot food from the microwave are close.
[00:11:23] This also could include a place to keep oven mitts so you’re not tempted to try and carry something hot when you can easily reach something to protect your hands. How many times have you tried to pull down your sleeves to carry something hot? I did that the other day. Anyway, along those same lines, many felt it was essential to have a heat-safe surface by their microwave.
[00:11:44] So you can easily move a hot dish out of the microwave to another surface before transporting it. In fact, a lot of extra counter space around the microwave is just helpful in general. Plus, another smart thought is to think through how their microwave door is going to swing. Consider making sure the swinging door doesn’t open toward the side of the heat-safe surface.
[00:12:09] If you have to reach around that open microwave door to put a hot item on the counter, it actually decreases some of the convenience for any user. Another Design Advisor also noted that placing the microwave near the refrigerator may also be useful because it will decrease the distance you have to go to transport the food to the microwave.
[00:12:31] Rebecca: Definitely. All of these tips really spoke to me as an occupational therapist because I just kept thinking, this is all about environmental setup. How do you want to set up the space around your microwave to make it easiest to do the things you need to do with the microwave? That thought process, I’m sure you agree, Sarah, is really familiar for us as occupational therapists. We know how much easier tasks can become when they’re set up correctly.
[00:12:57] Sarah: Yes, it is. It’s just doing an analysis of each step someone would do in an activity, and us OTs call that activity analysis. This gets interesting with our work at our organization because we’re trying to think through that for each potential person that may use the space with any type of impairment. So that can get complicated but it’s very important and definitely needed.
[00:13:23] Another good point made by a Design Advisor that we should definitely mention is that it can be tricky to build microwaves into counter spaces or cabinets because if you need a new microwave, it may not fit. I’ve definitely seen this happen to a lot of people who have refrigerators that are built-in as well.
[00:13:41] Rebecca: Yeah, that’s definitely something to consider if you’re designing a space from the ground up. Balancing personal customization with flexibility is key in making a home that’s a good fit and will be a good fit for a long time.
[00:13:54] Now, since we are The Universal Design Project, it seems appropriate that we wrap up our microwave conversation with a mention of some universal design and other cool features that we came across in putting together this episode.
[00:14:07] One of our Design Advisors suggested installing a pull-out cutting board beneath the microwave as a place to put food when you take it out. This also can compensate for some lost space on the counter if you do choose a countertop microwave.
[00:14:21] Sarah: I love this idea. Definitely a creative way to save space and add functionality.
[00:14:28] Rebecca: Agreed. We also learned about microwaves that can be voice-activated. It sounds like this technology is still in its infancy, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on. We’ll share a link to this in the show notes.
[00:14:40] We also heard a lot of feedback about the noises that microwaves make. For some people, it may be useful to have a microwave that has repeat alerts so you don’t forget your reheated snack. On the other hand, the loud noises can be really irritating for some, especially if you have a sleeping baby you don’t want to wake or are someone who likes to enjoy midnight leftovers without disturbing your housemates. Regardless of your preference, it’s important to check into these noise-related features and make sure that you find an appliance that fits your personal and familial needs.
[00:15:12] Lastly I’ll leave you with an idea that I loved, which is a microwave that has a cooling time feature that will prompt the user to wait a certain amount of time until the food has cooled down before reaching in for it. This sounds like a great universal safety feature.
[00:15:30] Well, Sarah, I never anticipated giving so much thought to microwaves, but I will say I learned a lot in making this episode.
[00:15:38] Sarah: Definitely there’s so much that can go on with any type of appliances, and I think with the changing technology, there will be a lot more features like some that we’ve mentioned today that will be beneficial for a wide variety of users in the future. The trick is making sure we can get that cost down for more affordability.
[00:15:58] Rebecca: Absolutely. I think that’s the goal for sure.
[00:16:02] Before we wrap up, I’d just like to say thank you to all of our Design Advisors who contributed to this episode and thank you to our listeners for tuning in. Stay well and safe and we’ll talk to you soon.