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Cruising, Anyone?

by Brent Betit

The cruise industry has a secret. Because virtually all ships are registered in foreign countries, cruise lines do not have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) - even though many ships sail out of American ports. This means that you should not automatically assume that if you have a physical challenge a cruise ship will provide necessary accommodations. In fact, you should not even assume that many common areas of the ship are accessible for wheelchairs or persons using other assistive devices.

That's the bad news. The good news is that cruise lines are businesses, and they know that a large number of physically challenged/differently abled persons do not let those challenges get in the way of a full and active lifestyle. "Disabilities" is really the wrong word, folks. "Differently abled" might be a better phrase. Serving differently abled passengers opens an important market constituency for cruise lines. The lines are therefore building new ships and renovating older ones to provide a higher level of access for those with a wide range of physical abilities. That's the good news.

There is other good news, as well. Can you think of a better way for someone who is without sight, or who uses a wheelchair, or has other special needs, to travel? No worries about finding an accessible bathroom. No packing and unpacking in unfamiliar hotel rooms, no wondering if the restaurant has a ramp and accessible bathroom, no need to become familiarized with a new, confusing network of streets every day, uneven sidewalks, and telephones that are out of reach. No wondering how to find a taxi that supports your needs. Cruising, anyone? Yes, indeed, cruising really can be for anyone.

At the same time, don't forget to do your homework! Everyone should fully investigate every aspect of their planned cruise, and this is particularly true for those with different abilities or special needs. For example, there are aspects of cruising that present significant obstacles to a wheelchair. Yes, virtually all of the ships have elevators nowadays, but on some older ships these are narrow, glacially slow, and too few in number. They also do not necessarily provide access to all areas of the ship. Remember also that tendering (taking a small ship into port) and gangways can challenge anyone, particularly during high seas.

I was recently on a cruise on an older (pre-1960's) vintage ship, which was recently overhauled, including the construction of several new decks. I was fortunate enough to book one of the cabins on the new decks, with balcony, huge marble bathroom, and space enough to have a tag sale. (In case you're wondering, no, I didn't sell my toiletries, television set, or king-sized bed.) There were also several handicapped-accessible cabins on these decks. The rest of the ship was, however, another story. It was impossible to get a wheelchair into the non-smoking dining room. Most of the doors leading out onto the decks had a four-inch lip (many pre-1960's ships made trans-Atlantic runs, and the lips kept seawater from washing into the ships during rough seas). Most of the public bathrooms were not handicapped accessible. In short, this ship was not a good choice for anyone with physical challenges.

Which is exactly what one outraged passenger was explaining to a young purser on the second day of the cruise. (They made a strategic error by placing the Purser's Desk was on an accessible deck.) She let him know in no uncertain terms that as far as she was concerned she had wasted thousands of dollars on a cruise that did not support her needs in the slightest. If you don't want to feel that way, do your homework.

Okay, you say, but how do I do my homework? Is there some sort of directory listing all of the accessible ships, and lines that can support special needs? Not exactly. You need to do a bit of digging. To find out if the ship you are considering has accessible cabins, take a look at the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships. You will note that a number of ships built in the 1990's do not have a single accessible cabin! And remember that even if a ship does have accessible cabins, one cannot assume that the rest of the ship is accessible, as my fellow passenger so eloquently pointed out to a young purser.

Fortunately, I have scoured the web for other resources that can help the differently-abled find the right cruise (listed in no particular order):

  • The Access-Able Travel Source (http://www.access-able.com) is a listing of agencies that can assist in discovering accessible travel options.
  • Emerging Horizons - The Accessible Travel Newsletter (http://emerginghorizons.com/Horizons/) provides travel tips, columns, features, and other articles of interest to travelers with special needs.
  • Accessible Journeys is a booking service that can arrange for group or independent cruising, arranging for licensed medical personnel to accompany those with medical needs. Their theme is "making the world more accessible." (http://www.disabilitytravel.com)
  • Dialysis at Sea Cruises (http://www.dialysis-at-sea.com) can connect cruisers requiring dialysis with cruises that support that need. As their website says: "Dialysis At Sea® Cruises provides dialysis travelers, friends and family with exceptional opportunities while simultaneously meeting their individual medical needs. What better way is there to visit exotic ports of call while maintaining dialysis treatment, than on a cruise." Darn right.
  • The Society for the Advancement of Travelers with Handicaps is a good information site, and might be the place to start for all differently-abled or special needs cruisers (http://www.sath.org)
  • ADA Vacations Plus can handle dialysis, respiratory needs, and persons with physical challenges, either individually or within groups. They market themselves as a "full service medical travel agency." (http://www.medicaltravel.org)
  • Sea Turtle Cruises is a specialized travel service, catering to those with special medical needs, including oxygen-dependency. (http://www.sea-turtles.com) Their website says that: "Whether clients want a group cruise or an individual independent cruise, SeaTurtle Cruises will handle all special requests and special needs, including oxygen-dependent cruises!"
  • The Global Access - Disabled Traveler Network (http://www.geocities.com/Paris/1502) provides access guides for worldwide travel, travel stories by differently abled travelers (archives), features, and other great resources.

Of course, you can also check out the cruise ship accessibility link right here at The Sealetter: (http://www.sealetter.com/archives/access.html)

Most cruise-only travel agents will assist you in finding the right cruise that fits your unique travel needs. The point is that all of us have unique travel needs - not just those who are "differently-abled." Making your agent aware of what those needs are, from the need for pristine beaches and scuba gear, to the need for dialysis equipment, is essential. A cruise meeting your needs probably exists out there, if you do your homework, make extensive advance plans, communicate your needs clearly, and don't assume anything.

In other words, cruising isn't for anyone, it's for everyone.

Happy cruising.


Brent BetitBrent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife and two young children.

Brent has written many SeaLetter columns on such subjects as sea-going language, cruising with kids and cruise etiquette. To find all of Brent's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Brent Betit" as your search phrase.

Brent is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Brent@sealetter.com.

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