My turn: Welcoming all aboard ship

Posted: Sunday, August 19, 2007

My brother-in-law, Joe Tompkins, has been confined to a wheelchair since he lost the use of his legs in a drunk-driving accident at 18. Since then, he has gone on to accomplish things that only a fraction of the so-called "normal" population could even dream of doing.

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He's a two-time world-champion downhill skier and a United States Olympic athlete who represented his home town of Juneau in two Winter Olympics. He's a guest speaker for local organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and also a Juneau Little League coach. He's a good dad, a great uncle and a devoted son, and my husband and I were proud to call him our best man at our wedding.

But perhaps most importantly for reasons of this My Turn, Joe is a true Alaskan. Facing all challenges with a sense of humor and pit-bull-like personality, he represents what I feel the people of Juneau want their citizens to be: civically responsible, culturally informed, physically adept and sympathetic to those less fortunate than himself.

Unfortunately, none of these facts seemed to matter a couple of weeks ago, when the crew of the ferry Fairweather leaving Haines refused to allow Joe on board because the elevator that would normally have granted handicapped people access was broken. One specific crew member, speaking for the ferry system to my brother-in-law, not only refused to allow Joe and his chair to be carried up the steps to the second passenger deck, he also prohibited Joe from staying in his car for the trip. Despite being given several simple ways Joe and his wheelchair could easily board the ferry, this crew member flat-out refused to accommodate Joe in any way and was content to leave him sitting on the dock in Haines with no way back to his home in Juneau.

I'm writing this letter for two reasons. The first is to draw attention to the apathy and ignorance of the crew member who refused access to Joe. Is this really the type of person we want representing Alaskans on a ferry system which caters not only to Alaskans but thousands of national and international tourists each year? I think not.

The second reason for this letter is to share my brother-in-law's reaction to this ignorance. Upon being told that the only way he could board the ferry was if he could get up the stairs himself, Joe left his wheelchair and crawled halfway up to the second deck using only his highly developed upper body strength. The Fairweather left the dock unaware that he was stationed on the staircase. When the crew realized that Joe had taken matters into his own hands, the ferry was turned back to Haines, Joe was unloaded into an ambulance and the Fairweather once again started for Juneau. An hour later, Joe was flown back to Juneau courtesy of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The ferry system needs to take a serious look at its actions and employee practices if this sort of behavior is considered company policy. They not only embarrassed themselves, they also caused embarrassment to a man that many people in this town consider a personal hero.

• Maggie Ferguson is a Douglas resident.

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