Friday, April 8, 2011

Seattle ferries add video monitors of information for hearing impaired passengers

From Seattle Times:

When John Waldo, who is hearing-impaired, lost his checkbook at Colman Dock a few years ago, he didn't hear the announcement that it had been found.

Although he eventually got it back, Waldo saw the incident as another sign that the state ferry system wasn't doing enough to help its hearing-impaired passengers.

When his wife was returning from a trip, Waldo didn't hear the announcement that passengers were getting off the boat, so he wasn't there to help her with her heavy suitcase.

Waldo has a cochlear implant, but even with that he misses announcements because background noise from ferry boats is so loud.

"There's a lot of anxiety when you know something is being said and you don't know what it is," said Waldo, an attorney who filed a lawsuit against the state because it wasn't accommodating the hearing-impaired. "Once we filed the lawsuit, we got the attention of a lot of people. The ferry system makes a considerable number of announcements over public-adddress systems on its boats and at its terminals. Those announcements have often been inaccessible to riders with hearing loss."

The lawsuit was settled when the state agreed to create a system to display the announcements on special screens installed on some of the boats and in terminals.

On Friday, the ferry system kicked off what it calls a "visual paging project" on screens on the two Bainbridge Island ferries — the Tacoma and the Wenatchee — as well as Colman Dock and the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal.

The state hired Four Winds Interactive to design the system, which the state hopes to expand to all ferries in the system.

The pilot project costs about $100,000.

On the Tacoma, the second mate has a keyboard to type out the messages. For example: Vessels are arriving and departing; someone left their car alarm or lights on; passengers must depart on the car deck; someone lost a cellphone; there's a whale breaching near the boat.

"This is really exciting," said Michelle Coleman, with the Hearing, Speech and Deafness Center in Seattle. "We're working toward creating systemic changes. We want to create an environment where everyone has the ability to communicate and there aren't barriers."

Steven Zwerin, a hearing-impaired passenger on the Tacoma, said the new system helps "equalize things. We're... pretty excited about this. This decreases our anxiety."

Paula Bouwer, who is also hearing-impaired and rides the Kingston-Edmonds ferry, said she'd like to see the electronic message-board project expanded.

"There are deaf ferry riders on all routes and all routes should be equally accessed — not just the favored Bainbridge route," she said

The ferry system's Marta Coursey, who was the leader on the project, doesn't know how much money it would cost to expand the program to all the ferries in the system or whether the ferry system could afford it.

Bouwer, manager of deaf services for Washington Vocational Services, said she was on the Kingston ferry on a dark and rainy afternoon. When the ferry was halfway to Kingston, Bouwer noticed the boat was taking a different route and, unable to hear what was going on, wondered why. (It was having mechanical problems.)

"I had to make special arrangements for child care, all via email on my pager after asking around all over what was going on. The bottom line here is that we, the deaf and hard-of-hearing population, should have equal access to announcements."

Another hearing-impaired rider of the Kingston ferry, John Lambrecht, said he has taken the ferry for 21 years and several times has missed messages because he couldn't hear them.

Once, he said, his ferry was diverted to Seattle because of an emergency in Edmonds, but he didn't know what to do when he walked off the boat in downtown Seattle. Unknown to him, there were buses ready to take him to Edmonds.

While he likes the idea of the text messages on the ferries, he still wonders how the ferry system can alert hearing-impaired riders to read them. "But it's a step forward and that's good," Lambrecht said.

The system still has some kinks to work out, Coursey said. For instance, there's no way to display the message on the car deck, where about half of the ferry riders remain during the trip.