Immersive experience at Whirlpool Corporation puts employees and leaders in the shoes of disabled consumers

AVID resource group's immersive experience in the kitchen

Whirlpool Corporation’s AVID (Awareness of Visible and Invisible Disabilities) Employee Resource Group has created a unique program to help leaders and employees at the company to see and feel the world through the lens of those with disabilities. This Disability Immersion Activity, as it is called, puts people through the paces of a disabled person cooking in their home.

“The idea started when one of our AVID members was in a meeting talking about how she had injured her foot and she was on one of those knee scooters,” said one of the group’s leads, Menel Gregory. “As she was trying to navigate around the office, she thought it would be interesting to have leaders go through that experience of having a disability for a short period of time. That morphed into an exercise where we would give people a simulated disability and then have them try to use our products.”

Kitchen learning to understand what it is like to cook with limited mobilityThere were two activities that showed how simple tasks become more complicated with disabilities. The first activity simulated severe vision impairment and had the participant try to boil a pot of water on an induction cooktop with capacitive touch controls. In the second activity, participants were asked to place dishes in the oven while in a wheelchair. This demonstrated how many obstacles one may face in a kitchen while sitting in a wheelchair.

The objectives of the project are to build empathy for consumers with disabilities through firsthand experiences, and leverage those experiences to support further embedment of accessibility features in future product development at the corporation. In addition to putting employees through this exercise at Whirlpool Corporation’s Edgewater Tech Center in Benton Harbor, Michigan, part of the program will allow employees to take part in the experience in their own homes.

Whirlpool Corporation Senior Director of Product Marketing David Stimac was one of the leaders who took part in the exercise. “One of the reasons why I appreciate the team putting this together and why this is important is that our whole mission at Whirlpool is to make life better at home for all of our consumers,” he said. “Activities like this help someone like myself to get a small taste of what being disabled and trying to use our products could be like. Having our employees go through this experience will definitely help to create empathy for how some of our consumers experience our products.”

Commercial Laundry Senior Product Manager Michael Buzzard, who is also part of the AVID employee resource group, was on hand observing the exercise. “I think there’s an opportunity for us to take away from this experience, not just the opportunity to improve with respect to low vision and with respect to limited mobility, but to broaden considerations for those with any disability as we design future products. Through this experience, we can increase empathy for our customers, which helps us make our products better for everyone.”

Engineer Katelin Frayer, who was administering the wheelchair experience, had a similar sentiment. “I think exercises like this can help the team to think about a more diverse portfolio of products,” she said. “There is no one right answer to accessibility, so making sure we have something for everyone is really going to be the key moving forward.”