Texting for Access?

July 22, 2011

A few weeks ago I encountered an interesting example in Stockholm of the way that technology meant to increase convenience can actually decrease accessibility.  At one of the city’s most central libraries the building management had recently decided to implement a new system to allow access to the restrooms. The library is housed in a large community center showcasing art and culture in the city center, which is open to all and widely used by people of many ages and experiences.

For some time restroom users paid about 80 cents (5 kr) by sliding a coin into a small machine to gain entrance. This is a simple and relatively and common practice for public toilets in Stockholm.  But, the coin machine had now been removed and by the door stood a small sign letting users know that they now needed to pay by (mobile phone) text to get access to the restroom.

Although mobile phone penetration in Sweden is quite high, this new “efficient” design feature stopped me – and a small group of other people gathered around the door – in our tracks. Since I had a relatively simple pay-as-you-go phone with no data plan I was unsure of whether my phone would work. Would I need to go on the internet? If I texted the number what exactly would happen? Would money be deducted from my phone card? Would it only be the 80 cents, or would the phone company charge me a fee? It might have explained some of this in the fine print, but it was difficult to decipher in Swedish, which I speak, but which is not my first language.  An older man next to me, perhaps in his seventies, also looked perplexed and commented, “now I really have to learn how to text”.  A woman in her forties with an iPhone huffed off saying, “this just isn’t democratic!”

A man in his twenties attempted texting, and received a code to punch into the keypad at the entrance to unlock it. But, when he tried to do so the code didn’t work.  So, while this change surely looked efficient and easy from the perceptive of its designers (which would be very interesting to investigate), not even one of four people was able to use that particular restroom that day.

***I returned to the same location a few weeks later and noticed that a paper sign had been put up by the door informing users that they could get a code to the restroom by paying 5kr at a nearby desk as an alterative to texing: an analogue accessibility fix.




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