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Can openers

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Can openers: assistive, ambitious, or simply abhorrent?

Over decades of use in all kinds of kitchens, the classic can opener has established itself as the quintessential case of the impossibly frustrating product that you simply can't live without. In reality, the idea behind its use is simple; clamp it into the rim of the can, turn the handle, make some gears spin, and behold -- the blade churns along the circumference until the lid and the can have been tweezed in twain. However, as straightforward as that seems, operating the traditional can opener requires an unpredictably apportioned balance of physical effort and luck.

Manual can opener
Manual can opener

Take, for instance, this run-of-the-mill can opener. Using it automatically requires the use of two hands: one to firmly press the grips together, and the other to determinedly twist the handle on the side. Often, users may wish for a third hand with which to hold the can steady against the violent rocking that inevitably occurs during the not-so-gentle ordeal of can opening. How, then, would someone with an upper body impairment hope to muster the necessary strength or precision to work it? Or how would someone with a sensory impairment such as blindness be able to reconcile all the different clamping, twisting, and turning parts without spilling the can's contents?

Standard electric can opener
Standard electric can opener

Thankfully, this problem has not gone completely unnoticed throughout decades of canned-food opening woes, and some companies have produced clever alternatives to the rusty old can opener. Perhaps the most obvious technological solution would be that yes, sticking a motor in it and plugging it into an electrical outlet should certainly aid you in your struggles against soup cans. With the counter-top standing electrical can opener, such as the West Bend model pictured above, you simply attach your can and let the machine do the work. This option would seem fairly friendly towards those with limited upper body mobility, since it doesn't require difficult hand and/or wrist tricks such as gripping, twisting, or having a third arm. However, it has pitfalls as well; lacking stability, it often splashes liquid from the can onto the counter, and reviewers frequently gripe about finding shreds of the paper labels on the counter or even in their food. One customer, a reported arthritic, claimed that although this particular can opener was easier to use than the traditional model, it still required some manual tweaking and a good bit of practice to get it working properly.

Next, consider the visually impaired; again, this can opener wouldn't require them to juggle tasks, but it would result in them trying to locate and clean up the mess after use. Also, the blade on this particular version apparently is not nested completely out of harm's way, so visually impaired persons in particular might run a higher risk of cutting themselves.

One-Touch Battery-Operated Can Opener
One-Touch Battery-Operated Can Opener

For those seeking the next step up, the One-Touch battery-operated can opener is an ambitious piece of gadgetry. Simply clamp it on top of the can, press a button, and it automatically dances around the lid of the can, producing a non-sharp edge to reduce accidental cuts and somehow magically preventing the severed lid from falling into the can. For an upper-body impaired person, this would seem like the ideal, since it requires only enough exertion to press one button once, and the blunted cut edge would reduce the need for precise hand movements. This level of tolerance for error, as well as the simplicity of form, would also come in useful for the visually impaired. Unfortunately, there does seem to be one major problem with the One-Touch: it tends to not work. According to several reviews, it will get stuck on the can and refuse to come off. One angry consumer even claimed to have thrown the appliance away with the still-unopened can of food. Considering that this model costs more than any of the previous examples -- nearly $20 - that makes for a tragic waste.

At the end of this brief spiel, it might seem like there is no real answer to the can-opening problem. In reality, though, a great number of companies continue to invest time and money into developing their own creative solutions. For OXO, that may mean adding a nice, comfy, no-slip rubber grip to the handles of an otherwise rather standard can opener. Or for soup companies such as Campbells, it could be adding can-opener-less pop tabs to the tops to their soup cans. The possibilities just may be endless, but one thing is for certain: when it comes to this little, pesky kitchen appliance, the show is hardly in the can.


Author: Lori White Universal Design @ Georgia Tech.