Coffee Makers for the Visually Impaired: What Are the Best Barrier-Free Models?

There are some things that I only start thinking about when one of you directly addresses me about them. That's exactly what happened when someone in the Coffeeness Community asked if I could recommend any barrier-free coffee makers and super-automatic espresso machines for blind people.

DeLonghi ECAM 22.110.B Arne Ubersicht

There are some things that I only start thinking about when one of you directly addresses me about them. That’s exactly what happened when someone in the Coffeeness Community asked if I could recommend any barrier-free coffee makers and super-automatic espresso machines for blind people.

The visually impaired are finding it increasingly difficult to find devices they are actually able to use. Manufacturers usually only think of barrier-free accessibility as an added extra and concentrate primarily instead on digitization – and hence touchscreens with non-tactile interfaces and parts that can no longer be clearly identified by touch.

I’ve done some research, scoured my super-automatic espresso machine reviews and looked at alternative ways of how to make coffee and espresso without the use of sight.

I’m definitely still dependent on your expertise though too, and I look forward to any further tips you might have in the comments section!

Seeing With Your Fingers: What Makes a Super-Automatic Espresso Machine Barrier-Free?

Those of us used to our eyes being in charge probably can’t appreciate just how much progress has pulverized all forms of tactile perception. Researching this article has helped me realize that, with all these touchscreens and sleek coffee makers, you can’t actually feel what you’re doing anymore.

Sage Oracle Touch espresso machine with large touchscreen

Many visually impaired and blind people complain about this, not only in relation to the coffee world, but the entire realm of modern household appliances. The German Society of Home Economics (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Hauswirtschaft) has compiled a very comprehensive checklist of selection criteria for barrier-free coffee and espresso machines (sorry, this document is available in German only).

All aspects of each type of limitation are detailed here. When choosing super-automatic espresso machines and coffee makers for the visually impaired, the following elements are essential:

  • Tactile buttons that are highly perceptible to the touch
  • Very simple and easy to use operationally
  • Rotary knobs with home positions and markings
  • Light or acoustic signals as opposed to visual display only
  • Very easy and thorough cleaning processes
  • Removal and replacement of all detachable parts must be clearly discernible
  • Shapes of the individual parts should be highly distinctive
  • Water tank with wide opening and high level of grip
  • Power switch that’s easily accessible, but safely positioned
  • App designed with barrier-free access in mind

The Best Super-Automatic Espresso Machines for the Visually Impaired: Comparisons, Recommendations and Tips

With the above list in mind, I’ve gained two key insights: the best super-automatic espresso machines for the visually impaired should be either as old(-fashioned) as possible, or so perfectly digitalized that practically all operations can be carried out via an app.

Smartphones are much further ahead when it comes to barrier-free accessibility and translate images and text into acoustic signals for the visually impaired. The prerequisite for this, however, is that the app’s programmers have thought ahead and provided all its features with corresponding tags (i.e. metadata as an image description). As you’ll soon discover, this isn’t always the case.

DeLonghi PrimaDonna super-automatic espresso machine in-app coffee beverage selection

On the other hand, old-fashioned super-automatic espresso machines have the advantage that they’re fitted with proper buttons as well as simple lights and light signals that can be checked with a light probe.

When looking for machines at either of these two extremes in today’s world of appliances, however, you’ll find the product offering is becoming alarmingly limited. Having said that, I did come across one very clear recommendation from Germany’s Education Without Barriers – Training Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired (Bildung Ohne Barrieren – Bildungsinstitut für Blinde und Sehbehinderte Menschen e.V. (abbreviated as BOB)): the DeLonghi Magnifica ECAM 22.110.B, which has achieved top marks in several other reviews too.

DeLonghi ECAM 22.110.B super-automatic espresso machine Arne making espresso

The cheapest of all the super-automatic machines offering full functionality (as opposed to those without milk frothers), this model offers visually impaired people many advantages that would otherwise put them at a disadvantage when it comes to more modern devices:

  • It features tactile buttons with adequate resistance
  • Once set, there’s no need to adjust anything
  • According to BOB, the help of a sighted person is only required once for initial calibration
  • The need for descaling is reliably indicated via light signal
  • The descaling button features a tactile dot to distinguish it from other function buttons
  • The water tank and brew group can be removed easily by touch alone

Now and again, some organizations and bloggers also mention a super-automatic machine called the Philips Saeco Exprelia HD8856/01. This device, which looks like a somewhat more modern version of the Magnifica, is only available in very limited supply, however.

Gaggia Anima super-automatic espresso machine overview picture with finished Latte Macchiato and Espresso

When it comes to the importance of tactile perception, the Gaggia Anima (Saeco Incanto) must also be mentioned. The fact that the reign of buttons is finally over is very apparent here though, too – the Anima is now slowly becoming a second-hand item.

I did a little more digging and looked around on various blogs. I came across another tip from schwedenlady, a blogger who’s been blind from birth:

She writes that Nivona generally manufactures very barrier-free super-automatic machines and constantly strives to progress things further. She’s full of enthusiasm for the 9th series, but has spoken in favor of the 7th series too. Whether or not this also includes the NIVONA CafeRomatica 769 is a question I’ll put to you.

Nivona CafeRomatica 769 super-automatic espresso machine Arne presents the machine

Nivona’s app isn’t yet fully developed, but it’s the lack of control over the cleaning cycle that’s most criticized by those in the blind and visually impaired community. This is a problem for every manufacturer offering super-automatic machines with an app connection, however.

The previously mentioned allocation of clear tags to all app features (i.e. virtual buttons, sliders, etc.) is also an area needing improvement:

If developers only assign a generic meta keyword such as “key” or “picture” to certain app elements, such as a button for preparing latte macchiato, the voice control for blind users can thus only announce “key” or “picture”. The correct keyword should be something like “start preparing Latte Macchiato” instead.

The biggest leap forward for the visually impaired would be if “smartphones could serve as a remote control for the device – instead of using the touchscreen”. This is how one user on the schwedenlady blog aptly summarized things.

DeLonghi Maestosa super-automatic espresso machine Arne holding finished latte macchiato made using the Maestosa up to the camera

Two devices are coming ever closer to achieving this barrier-free ideal: the current top DeLonghi Maestosa and Jura Z8 models cannot be outdone in terms of digitalization and app control. Even their grinders can (for the first time) be calibrated via smartphone.

They cost what they cost, however. You’ll find that these machines, too, are incredibly untactile – to say nothing of their many features.

What Are the Best Coffee Preparation Methods for the Visually Impaired?

With my new knowledge of coffee maker and super-automatic machine requirements for the visually impaired, I’ve formed the impression that the combination of a portafilter machine plus an external coffee grinder might be the more sensible choice.

That’s because tactile buttons, acoustic signals and light-up features continue to be standard here. Excessive digitalization and classic espresso are apparently mutually exclusive. In the case of grinders, too, wheels and tactile controls dominate the product offering – their unmistakable home positions ensure you’ll always be able to find the finest and coarsest grind settings.

Solis Barista Gran Gusto close-up shot of the four main control buttons

However, I say all this from my own unaffected perspective. I thus don’t know if, for example, the Solis Barista Gran Gusto – which, in my view, is very straightforward thanks to its few buttons, acoustic signals and LEDs – can, in fact, be recommended or not.

In any case, the German Society of Home Economics recommends that espresso machines should be designed to comply with the following points:

  • Easy insertion and tightening of the portafilter
  • The basket should not fall out when being tapped
  • Easy cleaning of the portafilter seal
  • Easy assembly of the portafilter

If steam wands aren’t an option, automatic milk frothers are a sensible alternative, because the simple, stable operation of these devices is always combined with acoustic signals.

Classic coffee makers also have very simple operating principles, which is why they keep popping up in this context too – the downside being that they “only” make drip coffee.

I look forward to the experts among you providing even more machine recommendations and other insightful suggestions in the comments section below. I plan to then gradually add these into the guide over time.

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