Accessible Cruising for the Disabled
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Accessible Cruising for the Disabled

The question of cruising in a wheelchair has been with us for about as long as there have been wheelchairs but the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 finally brought the whole subject into focus. Even then there was uncertainty and it took many years before a ruling of the US Supreme Court decided in 2005, on an appeal from a suit against Norwegian Cruise Line, that the act applied to foreign-flag ships sailing from US ports.

When the ADA was first passed, many thought that it was unlikely that cruise lines would do anything near as much as they have done, but it must be said that since that legislation most lines with US-based ships have vastly improved their offerings of disabled cabins and other special facilities.
The fact that it took a court decision to determine that the act actually applied at sea has meant that this American legislation has since had an effect on ships around the world.

Some Problems

Physically, equipping ships for wheelchair accessibility has long been a problem because of the lips and raised door sills that are installed in ships to prevent the ingress of water from the outside decks. The presence of steep stairways and complicated or intricate deck plans was sometimes also a problem, but this has now all been solved with modern design. Door width in cabins and elevators was the final consideration but special wheelchairs for travel have also allowed such problems to be avoided.

For the traveller a couple of significant problems are that (a) the disabled accommodation is often more expensive than other cabins and (b) it is sometimes difficult to book. The extra expense is usually related to the location of these cabins in areas of the ship that are most accessible and the shortages because cruising has become very popular even (or possibly especially) for people in wheelchairs.

One specific problem that relates to river ships and not ocean ships is that there are usually no elevators. Although such ships only have two decks, or at most three, this is something that would be incredibly helpful to those in wheelchairs just in order to get from cabin to lounge or lounge to dining room.

NCL Video - Accommodations and Amenities for Passengers with Disabilities (Real Player)
Click here if you dont see it

How the Lines Dealt With It

Although NCL that was the line that was taken to court, its is the same company that has made some remarkable progress, especially with its newest ships such as the Norwegian Jade and Norwegian Pearl, which feature the following:

27 wheelchair-accessible cabins, including suites. All have wider doors, collapsible shower stools, bathroom toilets with collapsible arms and a low wash basin. Other features include a vibrating alarm clock, a light that flashes when someone knocks on the door, televisions with closed caption decoders, and a fire alarm beacon.

11 wheelchair-accessible public toilets throughout each ship.

Dedicated wheelchair positions in the show lounge (equipped with hearing-impaired induction systems).

Electrical hoist for access to pool and hot tubs.

Hearing-impaired kits available on request.

All elevators and cabins have Braille text.

Getting the Word Out

One UK company, Accessible Travel, took advantage of the Cruise Week launch earlier this month to show what it is like to travel with a disability. They brought people's attention to the subject by bringing some intending disabled cruisers to visit the Norwegian Jewel in Dover for the kick-off event for Cruise Week.

While one company may specialise, others may ignore the subject completely, but some, such as Creative Cruising, are to be commended for dedicating a page of their web site to disabled passengers. Covering wheelchair friendly, visually impaired and hearing impaired as well as passengers with dietary requirements, it also recommends particular ships. Royal Caribbean's Brilliance class have 26 wheelchair cabins, as do NCL's newest ships, one each of which is now based at Dover and Southampton each summer.

Some Questions for the Wheelchair Cruiser

When booking a cruise the wheelchair cruiser has to remember to ask about tender ports and to try to book a ship that docks at all ports of call. Landing by tender is often out of the question for someone in a wheelchair, but if there is a tender port, depending on your situation, ask if the ship can get you ashore - some tenders are better than others.

Try to book a newer ship that suits your tastes. Pretty well all modern ships, and especially those built since the passage of the ADA, have purpose-built and designed disabled facilities. Ships built during more recent years are more likely to have purpose built staterooms that are also conveniently located close to elevators for getting around.

On board, make sure outside decks are accessible without assistance and that there is a ramp to the balcony, if one is booked. Equally, or possibly even more important, make sure an easily accessible table can be booked in the dining room. Are there wheelchair places in the show lounge where the view is good? Is there a hoist or a lift at the pool so that one can enjoy a swim.

Don't forget to ask it the cruise line has any special literature on the subject. All cruise lines have mobility departments that may have more specific information than your travel agent.

Also, check connecting flights and transfers to make sure there are no unexpected surprises.

A Niche (But Growing?) Market

Some have pointed out that as the baby boom grows older, this market may well expand, but one of the things that came out of the recent visit to the Norwegian Jewel was that many disabled travellers were unaware of the extent to which cruise lines have gone to meet their needs.

Possibly there is a market out there that can still be developed further and possibly we may hear further on this subject in future.

(Source: By Mark Tré -

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