We've based the following guidelines on information from the Independent Living Centre (NSW):
If you're in a wheelchair or have back problems
- A front loader is generally easier to access. You can have it mounted on a raised surface to avoid bending (see Raising front loaders off the floor), or load and unload it while sitting down.
- Controls at the front of the machine are easier to access than at the back.
- Check the door is easy to open: one with a wide opening and that opens to a full 180 degrees is easier to load and unload.
- If you prefer a top loader, a smaller-capacity model with a shallow bowl may be easier to reach into and unload.
- A combination washer/dryer, though expensive, could save you some loading and unloading. However, their drying capacity is less than the full wash capacity, so you still have to do two drying loads or dry some of the washing elsewhere.
If you have an upper limb impairment
- Look for one-touch start, keypad controls that are easy to press, and programming – like a 'favourite cycle' function – that minimises the need to use your hands.
- Look for a big door handle.
- Rotary controls can be difficult to turn if you lack hand strength – electronic pushbuttons are easier.
- Check detergent and fabric dispensers are easy to pull out (or uncover), fill and clean.
- If you have a hand tremor, look for large knobs to grasp.
If you have a problem with vision
- Labels and controls will be easier to use if they're large, raised above the surface and have good contrast – black or dark-coloured writing on white is easiest to read.
- Large knobs, buttons and handles are likely to be easier to use.
- Generally, fewer programming options are better, though 'favourite cycle' functions, as on Fisher & Paykel machines, mean only one button needs to be pushed to do a load once you've programmed it.
- Look for positive feedback like beeps when you push buttons, or other tactile, audio or visual feedback.
- In dark areas, a backlit liquid crystal display (LCD) can help.
For people with cognitive or memory impairment
- Look for labelling that's very clear.
- Some people might find pictures or graphics more useful than words.
- Choose appliances with few options for the controls.
- Appliances with auditory feedback can be a problem if this confuses the user. However, if memory is a problem a machine that sends an end-of-cycle signal could be useful.
Raising front loaders off the floor
If you have a bad back or use a wheelchair, squatting or bending down to load and unload a front loader can be difficult.
To help overcome access problems, you can mount a front loader on a plinth so its door is at waist height. Just make sure the plinth is stable and level, and able to hold the considerable weight of the front loader.
While Fisher & Paykel suggests the weight of the machine is sufficient to secure it on a stand if at least the front feet of the machine have levelling feet that can lock, other manufacturers advise securing the machine with the brackets supplied with the pedestal to prevent it from wobbling off during the spin cycle.
There are front loader washer stands available, which raise the washer or dryer about 38cm off the floor, and sometimes have a lockable drawer for storing and can be used with many front loaders.
To install, the stand must first be put into position and made level, and the washer (or dryer) is placed on it. The machine must then be made level, and its feet clamped to the stand at each corner to prevent horizontal movement. Installing the unit takes a fair amount of effort, particularly in tight laundry spaces, but is a one-off task.
CHOICE assessed a stand's ability to handle an unbalanced washing machine by putting it through a spin cycle with an unbalanced load. We repeated this test three times, and duplicated the process with another model. The clamps held firm and neither washer moved out of alignment with the stand. On two occasions the combined unit moved a few millimetres (as a washer on the floor may do), but was easily pushed back into position.