Group for hearing impaired sues WSF

A advocacy group for the hearing impaired has filed suit against WSF, asking for onboard messages to be displayed in text.  - File Photo
A advocacy group for the hearing impaired has filed suit against WSF, asking for onboard messages to be displayed in text.
— image credit: File Photo

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND — For most frequent ferry riders, public announcements about safety, car alarms and misplaced wallets are a mundane part of the ferry experience.

For riders who are deaf or hard of hearing, those auditory announcements can be a source of frustration and anxiety, said Bainbridge attorney John Waldo.

Waldo is representing the nonprofit group Washington Communication Access Project in a lawsuit aimed at forcing Washington State Ferries to display announcements in text on ferries and in terminals.

The suit, filed in Kitsap County Superior Court on July 2, asserts that by not providing visual translations of audio messages, WSF is violating the Washington Law Against Discrimination, which guarantees citizens “the right to be free from discrimination because of race, creed, color, national origin, sex or the presence of any sensory, mental or physical disability.”

Waldo, who is hard of hearing, said announcements made over WSF PA systems are too quiet for many passengers to understand.

Messages regarding safety procedures, changes in loading and offloading and courtesy announcements about lost items or ticket sales are unavailable to those passengers.

“There can be safety issues, there can be all kinds of issues,” Waldo said.

The lawsuit asks for WSF to be required to retrofit existing vessels and terminals with displays for the hard of hearing, and that displays be included in any future facilities.

Waldo said the group expects visual aids would display the “gist” of messages, and understands that relaying messages onto screens would not be practical in some situations.

“When a boat is on fire, I don’t expect someone in the second mate’s office to be typing out ‘THE BOAT IS ON FIRE,’” he said.

WSF representatives were not available Tuesday for comment. According to Waldo, WSF allows disabled riders to be accompanied by an attendant free of charge.

Reader boards and video monitors have already been installed at some terminals and onboard some vessels.

Waldo said he had been in correspondence with WSF officials since November about improving services for hard of hearing passengers, but said he didn’t feel the conversation would lead to significant improvements.

Washington Communication Access Project was founded this spring as an advocacy group for citizens with hearing loss.

The suit against WSF is its first legal action. Waldo said the groups planned to focus on improving hard of hearing access at live theater performances this year.

But with the ferry system in the midst of capital and financial studies, Waldo said the group felt it was time to be heard on ferry issues.

“We needed to get this on the table,” he said.

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