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Why Locking Up Phones at Concerts Puts People With Health Conditions at Risk

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s disability editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Locking cell phone pouches may be coming to a concert near you. More artists and venues, seeking to prevent audience members from disrupting the show by texting and taking video, are requiring attendees to place their mobile devices in a fabric pouch with a lock. The lock can only be opened by a special magnetic key held by venue staff in the lobby. A recent CNN article described using Yondr locking smartphone cases as “the agony and ecstasy of being forced to give up our phones at Broadway shows and concerts.” But for people with health conditions and our loved ones, locking phone pouches aren’t a matter of agony and ecstasy — they are discriminatory and dangerous.

Many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses require constant access to their smartphones. For us, electronic devices have a far more important purpose than checking in on Facebook or scrolling through cat memes. Here are just a few examples of why going without a phone, even for a few hours, can be hazardous:

  • Smartphones can alert their owners to sudden changes in their vital signs that may require quick action. In conjunction with an Apple Watch or FitBit, they can monitor heart rate and other indicators of health. They can detect certain types of seizures. They can be used by people with diabetes to monitor their insulin pumps and blood glucose.
  • People who are nonverbal due to autism, cerebral palsy, ALS and other disabilities often depend on their phone or tablet to speak, using augmented and alternative communication (AAC) software to turn pictures or letters into spoken words. If you put their device in a pouch, you are literally taking away their voice.
  • Parents of children with medically complex illnesses may only be able to go out if they have access to instant communication with their child’s nurse or babysitter at home in case something goes wrong.
  • People with PTSD may struggle to go out in public, and only feel some semblance of safety if they know they can call 911 at any time.

People with any kind of health condition and those accompanying us to events must be able to call for help in an emergency without having to depend on venue staff. The news is filled with stories about seniors and people with disabilities being left behind during natural disasters, and schools failing to account for kids with disabilities in active shooter scenarios — plenty of proof we can’t rely on anyone but ourselves to keep us safe in a crisis. Can disabled and able-bodied patrons of “phone-free” events really trust ushers will be waiting around outside to unlock Yondr cases during a fire or mass shooting? Of course not. They’ll be running for their lives along with everyone else.

In short, locking phone pouches compromises the safety of all event patrons and could lead to people with a wide variety of health conditions being excluded from attending at all. Oh, and before you ask, “What did people in these situations do before cell phones?”, the answer is: they stayed home. And that’s no longer an acceptable solution.

I’m old enough to remember such a time. When I was a child with cerebral palsy in the 1980s, my parents didn’t go out much. On the rare occasions they did, everything had to be planned meticulously in advance so they could always be reachable by phone. They had to come home more than once because I got sick. And my condition was relatively stable — going out would have been next to impossible for them if I had been prone to seizures or needed equipment like a heart monitor or ventilator.

It’s still difficult for parents of medically complex kids to find reliable, trustworthy respite caregivers, but at least when they do, they can feel safer knowing they’re just a cell phone call or text away. It’s still challenging for people with disabilities and health conditions to attend music and theatre events due to physical access, attitudinal and financial barriers, but at least when we do, we can monitor our health and summon help quickly if needed. But now all the progress we’ve made is in jeopardy because venues are choosing to punish everyone for the actions of a few.

“What if they allow exceptions for medical needs?” you might ask. I haven’t been able to find a medical exception policy on Yondr’s website, or on any venue website where the pouches have been implemented aside from schools and courthouses. At the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice in Philadelphia, visitors are exempt from using Yondr cases if they are “persons with disabilities, as defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act, that require them to have electronic devices to communicate.” Even this policy is vague and doesn’t address people who require smartphone access for health monitoring or mental health conditions.

Yondr’s FAQ only states, “Q: I didn’t know about the phone policy. What if I don’t want to do this? A: This is the show policy, and as a result we cannot allow entry to any guests with cell phones or smart watches if they are not secured in a Yondr case.” So basically it’s lock your phone up or leave, regardless of the risk to your health and safety.

Even if there is an exception policy, the use of pouches at entertainment venues puts an undue burden on audience members to disclose their medical information and subjects them to an employee’s arbitrary judgment of whether their need is sufficiently legitimate. We can look at plastic straw bans as an example of how such policies almost inevitably end up being discriminatory. In cities and restaurants with straw restrictions, stories abound of customers being denied a straw on request and/or being subjected to rude comments about how they’re harming the environment or “looked just fine when [they] walked in.” If non-disabled servers at a restaurant are that suspicious of someone asking for a simple plastic straw, can we really expect ushers at an anti-phone concert to show understanding and compassion to someone who needs access to their mobile device at all times?

Like straws on request, medical exceptions to cell phone pouch policies are a good idea in theory, but in reality, who gets those exceptions will depend on the assumptions and prejudices venue staff bring to the exchange. As a wheelchair user, I can say, “I need to keep my phone out of a pouch due to my disability,” and the usher can see a visible, obvious reason why. Someone with epilepsy or diabetes is more likely to face scrutiny because they don’t “look sick.” We shouldn’t be forced to explain our medical histories to strangers just to attend events like everyone else.

As a fan of Broadway musicals, I’ve seen people misusing their phones during performances and am both frustrated and baffled by their behavior. Why would you pay $200 for a ticket only to sit there and scroll through your Instagram feed for the 20th time? However, they are by far the exception — most audience members turn off or mute their phones and put them in their bag, and are quick to intervene or summon an usher if they observe distracting device usage. As a person with a disability who needs quick access to my phone in an emergency, I am extra-careful not to bother anyone and keep my phone on vibrate in my purse during shows. Thankfully, I’ve never had to make or take an emergency call while at a show. But as a violent crime survivor, I know seconds count and depending on a stranger to unlock your device puts people with and without health conditions at risk.

Instead of treating audience members like children and taking their phones away, how about trusting and expecting them to behave like responsible adults? Let’s deal with the relatively few people who use devices in a disruptive way instead of policing everyone, especially in a way that disproportionately punishes people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. We just want to enjoy a show like everyone else.

The Mighty reached out to Yondr for comment and has yet to hear back. 

Image via Yondr.

Originally published: February 11, 2020
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