BC Ferries promises to accommodate special needs under new access rules

Deck Restrictions

BC Ferries has started restricting access to the lower vehicle decks on most of the ships in the fleet in an effort to meet Transport Canada regulations.

On the Langdale-Horseshoe Bay route, that means people who end up on the lowest deck, or the decks accessed by the side ramps on the Queen of Surrey and Queen of Coquitlam, will have to leave their vehicles when the ferry is underway. The regulation does not apply to the MV Island Sky, which serves the Earls Cove-Saltery Bay run.

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The ferry company is promising to do its best to accommodate those who need to remain in their vehicles, but some travellers are still concerned because there’s no guarantee.

Darren Johnston, director of fleet operations, told Coast Reporter this week that crews and terminal staff have been briefed on dealing with requests to be placed on an upper deck.

“It’ll be really important for anybody who has a genuine or valid need to remain in their vehicle to arrive early and identify themselves at the ticket booth as they go through so they can be directed down a lane that will – I hesitate to use the word guarantee – but give them some assurance that they will be loaded onto the upper car deck,” Johnston said. “If there’s any reason at all – medical, pets, anxiety or anything of that nature – the response will be ‘yup, we’ll put you down that lane.’”

Sunshine Coast resident Sheri Marino, an advocate for people with autism, is so worried about how the new rules will affect her when she travels with her adult autistic son Richie, that she wrote Premier John Horgan, saying she’s prepared to file a human rights complaint if necessary.

Marino said being able to remain with, or return to, the vehicle is an absolute necessity.

“Sensory stimuli can be extremely harmful to the autistic, and meltdowns can happen. You usually only have about a five-minute window to get that autistic individual out of the sensory overload,” she said. “If it’s left too long, it’s not only harmful to the autistic person, physically and emotionally, it’s also hell on the parent.”

As an advocate Marino worries that the rules, even if BC Ferries is able to accommodate most people most of the time, will deter people with special needs and their families from travelling

“Everybody’s concerned about it because it’s going to limit the use of BC Ferries … and that’s where the discrimination comes into play,” she said.

Marino said she thinks BC Ferries could easily develop a system that offers a guarantee of upper deck loading by issuing colour-coded cards that people travelling with special needs passengers can put on their dashboards, similar to the ones used to mark vehicles with a reservation.

Johnston said situations like Marino’s were taken into account when BC Ferries was working out the details, and a passenger on the autism spectrum was one of the specific examples they considered. “We’ve had exhaustive discussions and working groups to try to refine our procedures and that example is one of the examples we’ve used.”

Johnston said crew and terminal staff have been given “a small set of very clear instructions” that’s been reinforced with briefings and even role-playing exercises.

He also said BC Ferries crews won’t be aggressively enforcing the regulation. “We’re stressing that it’s a Transport Canada regulation. Our role is to make passengers aware of the requirements and encourage them, in a reasonable way, to comply with what is a pretty black-and-white regulatory requirement.” 

Johnston said, however, that if a situation escalates, crews can treat it like any other security incident. 

He also said Transport Canada has accepted that it’s unlikely BC Ferries will be able to ensure nobody is on a restricted deck, and they’re comfortable with the company being able to keep it to one or two on occasional sailings. “If the numbers [on the car deck] go from 30 or 40 down to one or two, that’s a significant risk reduction.”

Johnston said BC Ferries will also have to guard against the few people who’ll try to abuse the willingness to accommodate special needs. “What we really don’t want to see is people taking advantage of this leeway and making stories up and coming up with all kinds of false reasons. It’s a fine line for us to walk, but I’m confident we’ll get it right.”

Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons said concerns over the new rules, the reservation system, getting assured loading for people using TAP (Travel Assistance Program) for medical appointments, and a recent online petition calling for money for the Langdale terminal upgrade to be funneled into hourly sailings are part of a bigger picture the new government is trying to address.

“What we need is a ferry system that’s responsive to the public,” Simons said. “Efforts should be made to find better ways of doing things if you can… The minister made it clear to local governments at the UBCM [Union of BC Municipalities] that she’s going to be conducting a full review of BC Ferries.”

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