Expanding the Universe

Designing a kitchen and bath for the visually and hearing impaired
By Ellen Sturm Niz
June 28, 2010

Mobility and accessibility are key considerations in Universal Design, but they are not the only ones. “We often forget that Universal Design is not just for someone in a wheelchair or walker, but also should be designed for the sight- and hearing-impaired,” said Drue Ellen Lawlor, FASID, a principal of CLP Interiors in Pasadena, CA.

According to Research to Prevent Blindness, there are 15 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States. Thirty-seven million American adults have trouble hearing, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Not only are vision and hearing issues for those with certain eye and ear conditions and diseases, many adults experience a loss of these two senses as they age.

Lawlor, who publishes monthly articles in Senior Magazine, said visual impairment is one of the top four reasons for loss of independence among seniors. “Eye problems are the second most dreaded result of aging—first is falling,” she said. “Eighteen percent of all hip fractures among older people are attributed to age-related vision loss.”

Hearing loss is also a major issue for many people of various ages. “Twenty-two million Americans 20 to 69 years of age have permanently damaged their hearing due to exposure to loud noises, and one in 14 Generation Xers, aged 29 to 40, already have hearing loss—and they are not even in their senior years yet!” said Lawlor, who also holds a principal position in education-works, inc., an organization that offers continuing education seminars for design professionals. “Left untreated, hearing loss can lead to social isolation, anxiety and depression.”

In a kitchen or bath, not being able to see or hear can be both frustrating and potentially dangerous for the user. The right design elements, however, can create a functional and safe space for visually and hearing-impaired people. “If you’re dealing with a client with a particular vision or hearing impairment, you need to know how they operate,” said Julia Beamish, Ph.D., CKE, who teaches at the NKBA-accredited program at Virginia Tech. “They have systems and have trained themselves to use appliances and work in a kitchen or bathroom. Learn from them what they need, and do research to find out what else you can do for them.”

Beamish, who wrote for the National Kitchen and Bath’s [NKBA] Professional Resource Library, suggested checking out some of the NKBA’s survey forms for ideas about how to talk to clients about these issues. “A visual or hearing impairment might not be obvious, so it should be a standard question for all clients,” she said. “How someone with moderate impairments operates in the kitchen or bath may be different from someone with more severe vision or hearing problems. Designers should find out from the client how they need the space to work for them.”


While every client is different, some design elements can be particularly helpful for those with visual or hearing impairments. Lawlor, Beamish and Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, CAPS, CAASH, principal of Mary Jo Peterson, Inc., who also wrote for the NKBA’s Professional Resource Library, share some of the top considerations.

• Contrast colors and textures. Color and texture are key elements in an interior design for a visually impaired person. “Contrast can be more important than color change as it can alert the sight impaired to differences in height—steps, cabinets versus flooring, etc.—but also to differences between appliances, counters and plumbing fixtures,” said Lawlor. She suggested providing contrast between sink basins and the surrounding counter/vanity top; between toilets and the floor and surrounding walls; between the cooktop and countertop; and between the table and table linens and the plates. “It is very helpful to provide a [flooring] border that contrasts with the flooring in a kitchen or bathroom to more clearly identify the outer perimeter of the room,” Lawlor added.

“Watch the pattern on countertops, granites and other natural stones, which can have a lot of visual texture that can be difficult to interpret—is that a spot, wet, something I need to wipe up?” said Beamish. “At the Virginia Tech Center for Real-Life Kitchen Design, one of its features is raised edging on the countertop, providing a tactile surface as well as color contrast.”

“Think in terms of where the homeowners most often take their pills and/or supplements,” said Lawlor “They are usually various colors and can get lost on a multicolored counter or one with great variation in surface design. Why not designate one area for pill taking and keep that specific area a plain light color?”

“Although we need contrast to identify things, we also have to be careful not to confuse our perception of things,” said Peterson. “Pattern is an interesting aspect of design, but a bold pattern that disrupts your depth perception can be confusing, especially for a person with vision issues.” She added, “A line at the end of a step is helpful for most people, but a person with Alzheimer’s sees a line on the floor and thinks it’s a wall.

• Install proper lighting. Lighting takes on maximum importance for a visually impaired client. “Increase lighting, both natural and artificial,” said Lawlor. “This is particularly important in older homes. Older people require three times the amount of light to see as well as younger people, but are more sensitive to glare.”

“Place undercabinet lights toward the front of the cabinet so it illuminates the whole countertop surface,” said Beamish. “Make sure the countertop is a non-glare surface. Engineered stones can come with a non-glare surface, and naturally laminates and Corian don’t have the highest sheen.”

Surfaces, such as Corian and laminates, have less sheen.

Adjustable lighting can also help provide the appropriate light for homeowners as they age and their vision issues worsen. “It happens to everybody, so it helps to have lighting that's adjustable,” said Peterson, “Turn up the light you need—and turn down the lights around it, which can help you to see what you need.”

Peterson also recommended assessing natural light sources. “If the kitchen has a beautiful window with a view, make sure there is a treatment on the window or a finish on the glass to reduce glare from the afternoon sun.”

• Provide alternatives. Look for appliances that offer features, which benefit the visually impaired. “Consider appliances with dials and knobs that ‘talk’ and/or have tactile—even Braille—options,” said Lawlor. “Many appliance manufacturers offer large-print or Braille dials, overlays, contrasting color features and marking kits, so ask before you buy. In addition, some appliances can be adapted with products available on a variety of sites specifically geared with gadgets to make life easier.” These include sites like Institute for Human Centered Design [Adaptive Environments] and Lighthouse International.

Or consider alternate appliances, suggested Lawlor. “Small countertop appliances, including toaster ovens, coffeemakers and microwaves, may be safer and easier to use for heating food than the oven or stove,” she said. “The George Foreman Grill allows you to cook food on both sides simultaneously, without setting any dials or needing to flip or turn the food. Easy-to-set bread machines, crock pots and rotisseries can simplify the cooking process.”

“Install counter-level outlets for easy access, or use battery-operated appliances,” added Lawlor. “Some people feel more in control when using manual appliances.”

Peterson said to be aware of the color of indicators on appliances to make sure you get maximum contrast between the digit and the background. “Red against black is very hard to see. As we age our lenses thicken and yellow, so you want to choose colors and contrasts to enhance what you see,” she said. “Plus, consider the size of the digits of what you are reading.”

Peterson also suggested creating labels for various kitchen or bathroom objects and supplies. “When people lose sight [as they age], most don’t learn Braille,” she said. “Sometimes I will use a label maker that can make a large-font raised print and label items for them, like a large ‘S’ the salt or ‘P’ on the pepper, or a large letter on a cabinet indicating what’s inside. It’s tactile and it’s a letter they are already familiar with.”

• Increase accessibility. Of course, being organized is key to a visually impaired person. “Things have to go back in the same place, so they can find it easily the next time,” said Beamish. “Cabinets and drawers should have lots of pockets and dividers so you can have organized storage, such as in the systems that Blum or similar companies are offering.”

Systems such as Blum's ORGA-LINE help keep the kitchen organized, which is important to a visually impaired person.


• Reduce background noise. While it might be counterintuitive, reducing sounds can be beneficial for the hearing impaired. “Appliance motors and hard surfaces make kitchens noisy, but they are not useful noises,” said Beamish. “Background noises might interfere with voices, alarms and controls that you really want to hear. Get quieter appliances so the sounds don’t blend as much and you can hear more distinct sounds.”

• Create clear sight lines. Be aware that many people with hearing impairments lip read and depend on sight more. “When you design, pay attention on the line of sight for the cook and make it easier for someone with a hearing impairment to function more naturally,” said Peterson. “Also, if you’re setting up a snack bar for someone with hearing impairments, make sure people who sit there can face each other.”

• Provide redundant cueing. When one sense is diminished, people rely more on their other senses. “For people with hearing impairments, redundant cueing is a good thing to pay attention to,” said Peterson. “A microwave that both blinks and beeps cues you in more than one way what’s going on.”

Beamish adds that more “retro” appliances can be beneficial for older users. “Their knobs are often more comfortable for older people and easier for them to use,” she said. “You can feel the ‘click‚’ indicating the level.” There are also devices available that users can plug appliances into, which offer redundant cueing, such as blinking, dinging and vibrating. Many hearing-impaired products are available at Harris Communications, Inc., said Peterson.
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