Disabilities Leaders Hit Boat Line with Access Complaints

By JULIA WELLS

Gazette Senior Writer

There is no access for people with disabilities on the New Bedford passenger ferry Schamonchi, and a Cape Cod advocacy group recently filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation about the problem.

Spokesmen for the Cape Organization for the Rights of the Disabled (CORD) said yesterday they filed the complaint after months of unsuccessful attempts to communicate with the Steamship Authority about the problem.

“They are the high and mighty Steamship Authority. They are supposed to provide access, but it has slipped off their priority list,” declared Bill Henning, director of CORD.

“Management does not make access a priority. Their staff have always seemed disconnected from the intelligent world. We are second-class citizens — they could do this if they made it a priority, and they don’t,” said Pam Burkley, assistant director for CORD.

Two weeks ago CORD spokesman Julie Nolan crawled along a steep loading ramp to board the Schamonchi when she could not navigate the ramp with her wheelchair. Kevin Buckley decided not to board the boat in his wheelchair after he decided the risk was too great.

Once on board the Schamonchi, people with disabilities do not have access to the bathrooms, to the lunch counter or to the open air deck.

In the complaint to federal authorities, CORD spokesmen also describe insensitive treatment by boat line staff members, including unsafe and rough handling of people in wheelchairs.

The complaint was filed on August 9.

“We seek your intervention to require the Steamship Authority to promptly address these violations of the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] and civil rights of people with disabilities,” wrote Mr. Henning in the complaint.

The SSA bought the Schamonchi in January.

Senior managers at the SSA said yesterday they are aware of the access problems on the Schamonchi, but they said alterations could not be made to the vessel because the boat line was pressed for time to put the ferry in service.

“We were aware that there were some problems, but given the time line we were under it was just going to be impossible to do it,” said departing SSA general manager Armand Tiberio.

“We had three weeks to get the vessel ready for service and there certainly wasn’t time to address most of these issues,” said James Swindler, director of operations for the boat line.

Yesterday, Mr. Henning documented a series of contacts between CORD and the SSA that began a short time after the Schamonchi purchase was announced.

He said CORD contacted the boat line in January to discuss access issues and followed up with a letter in February. The boat line did not respond to the February letter and another letter was sent in March.

There was no response.

In July, CORD spokesmen brought their complaints to a legislative hearing held in Hyannis. Hosted by the Joint Committee on Transportation, the purpose of the hearing was to take testimony on a pending bill to expand the board of governors for the boat line. CORD spokesmen caused a stir among committee members when they described the poor access situation on the ferry Schamonchi.

Mr. Henning said boat line managers promised after the hearing that they would get in touch with CORD, but for 20 days there was no word.

By the time the SSA contacted CORD, the advocacy group had already scheduled a trip on board the Schamonchi. Three days after Ms. Nolan crawled onto the ferry to make the trip from New Bedford to Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Swindler met with spokesmen from CORD to discuss the problems.

On August 13, Mr. Swindler wrote a letter to CORD outlining a long list of vessel modifications required to make the ferry accessible for people with disabilities.

Mr. Swindler and Mr. Tiberio said the boat line has pledged to make the Schamonchi accessible in time for the next summer season — if in fact the Schamonchi is used on the New Bedford run next year. Mr. Tiberio, who will leave the SSA in three weeks to take another job, is pushing to replace the Schamonchi with a high-speed passenger ferry next summer.

Mr. Henning said CORD misses the tireless advocacy work of the late Gary Fauteux, who was a watchdog on boat line access issues for many years.

“Gary was such a phenomenal watchdog and he would have been on this a lot quicker,” Mr. Henning said.

Mr. Henning said CORD has taken no position on the thorny issue of whether to replace the Schamonchi with a high-speed passenger ferry. “We are not weighing in one way or another on that. This is about access. We understand the realities and we know it is an old boat, but show some good faith effort,” he said.

“It gets a little tiring being the handicapped police. Those days are over; we are just the messenger; they should be responsible,” Ms. Burkley said. She said she experienced poor treatment on board another boat line ferry recently when she was forced to stay on the freight deck throughout the trip because the elevator was blocked by parked cars.

“I had to ride with the cars because they didn’t park the cars correctly to allow access to the elevator. It’s low-blow stuff and it’s embarrassing,” she said.

Mr. Tiberio and Mr. Swindler said the modifications that are needed to make the the Schamonchi accessible for people with disabilities involve more than a few simple changes.

“It certainly doesn’t meet the standards and there are a number of fairly significant issues,” Mr. Swindler said.

“It is difficult; you’re talking about cutting steel. And it is true that the Schamonchi is not accessible in the lunch room or the bathrooms. For 90 minutes, you are by yourself [if you are a person with a disability],” Mr. Tiberio said. But the outgoing general manager firmly denied that there has been any slip in priorities when it comes to access for people with disabilities.

“This has always been a priority and it continues to be a priority. Ten years ago this organization was way out in front of the industry in terms of making terminals accessible to people with disabilities. All of our terminals are accessible on the land side,” Mr. Tiberio said.

The general manager also expressed respect for the work of CORD.

“They are advocates for a specific cause and I have full respect for that,” he said.

Mr. Swindler said people with disabilities who want to travel on the Schamonchi can receive assistance from the boat line staff. “We will deal with it the way we have dealt with it for the last 25 years — before these regulations were in effect. We will assist people in wheelchairs down the ramp and we will assist people by getting them food from the snack bar. Whatever they would like, we will bring it to them,” he said.

“We would say that as a public accommodation, they are required to provide service and not deny it based on disability,” Mr. Henning said.

Mr. Swindler said access overhauls on the Schamonchi will require a lot of work.

But Ms. Burkley had another view.

“It’s a lot of work to have a disability,” she said.