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Cruising with
Limited Mobility

by Tom Gauldin

When my wife was first feeling the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis, we were concerned that the plans we had made for grand vacations, exotic places and travel would have to be canceled. We soon discovered, however, that cruise ships were one of the best choices for people with limited mobility. We have now traveled twice to Alaska and to the Eastern and Western Caribbean on cruise ships without any problems, and have already begun plans for a cruise to the Baltic this summer.

Multiple Sclerosis is a disease that causes a gradual loss of strength, among other features. The result of my wife's 20 years of MS is that she now uses an Amigo three-wheeled electric scooter for distances, but she still has the ability to walk short distances into rooms and into baths unaided. The scooter is lightweight, uses gel cell batteries for convenience on airlines and can be easily carried by two adults up stairs. Its built-in recharger permits recharging from any electrical outlet, which is important when traveling.

Most cruises actually start at an airport, since few of us live in a port city. Here, the airlines encourage a person with a scooter to ride it to the gate, where it is transferred by the gate personnel to the baggage compartment. When the plane arrives at the airport, the scooter is the first thing off the plane and usually is waiting at the gate by the time the person is off the plane. Scooters with wet cell batteries require special disassembly of the battery package, storage of the batteries in leak-proof packaging and reassembly at the next gate. Gel cell batteries are completely sealed and almost always travel in the scooter without any problems. My wife and I fly as many as ten or twelve times in a year and have experienced nothing but helpfulness, courtesy and assistance from all airlines.

When we arrive at the port airport, my wife can usually walk to the bus the cruise line has waiting to take the passengers to the port. To date, all the buses we've seen are the large over-the-road types with storage under the passenger area. The scooter fits nicely inside with the baggage. Should she need to use it, it is available. We always place our cruise line luggage tag on the scooter in the event we become separated from it. We have encountered buses with no storage underneath AND no wheelchair lift, but here the light weight and size of the scooter permit two adults to easily hoist it aboard the bus. I've never had a person refuse to help me.

Modern cruise ships load from large (hopefully) watertight doors on the side, just above the waterline. These permit wide ramps with handrails for passengers and can even serve as a dock should a tender be needed in a port of call. If the cruise ship is docked at a large terminal, my wife actually rides across the gangway on her scooter to the cabin. Where gangways with steps have been necessary, the ship's hands carry the scooter aboard. We've even taken it on tenders, when the ship is anchored out in a bay. The scooter is loaded last and is waiting for us on the dock when we get off the tender. There are always ship's crew at the gangway and tender to assist handicapped persons. In fact, there are always ship's crew everywhere aboard the ship, which is one of the benefits of cruising -- there are always helpful people to hold an elbow or to help a passenger to get about.


Once ashore from the tender or from the dock, the tours arranged aboard the ship usually feature large air-conditioned buses with baths and plenty of storage room for wheelchairs and scooters. While we have our own scooter, we have noticed that many cruise lines have "loaner" wheelchairs for shore excursions as well.

During our last cruise to Alaska, we both commented that the docks were accessible to the handicapped. The difference between high and low tide in some Alaskan ports can be as much as 18'. In one city, the floating dock connected to the town via an inclined ramp. It was high tide when we disembarked and the ramp sloped gently. However, the return to the dock was via almost a 45 degree angle because of the falling tide. My wife decided that she'd walk down the ramp, leaving me to take the incline on the scooter for her.

Aboard the ship, corridors have always been wide enough for almost any scooter or wheelchair. In addition, since everyone aboard holds on when there are waves, all corridors have generous handrails. Our scooter is less than 2' wide, so it fits easily through the cabin door; however, on every ship we've cruised, the cabin steward has suggested that we park it in the hallway. This increases our room in the cabin and keeps it handy. We have seen and talked to many other passengers with wheelchairs and scooters, and have never heard the least complaint about access to public areas of the ships or to the cabins.

We have never required a handicapped cabin aboard a cruise ship, since my wife has the ability to use the standard bath facilities. While her handicap is caused by MS, those with an age-related lack of mobility or other partial disabilities generally do not require the additional features of a true handicapped cabin. Many of the newer ships offer cabins for the disabled, but frankly, these larger cabins require those that can walk a bit to cross larger areas with nothing to hold onto. The smaller cabins actually provide closer walls, desks and handholds than the ones for those unable to walk at all.

Having tried many different modes of vacationing, we've found that cruise ships offer the best combination of convenience and accessibility for folks with a problem of limited mobility.

We can't thank Thomas enough for writing the first of our columns on cruising for the disabled! Over the next few months and years, we hope to have many more articles and references to resources on line for information and assistance for the disabled cruiser. Feel free to email Tom Gauldin with any questions you may have, or to thank him for his contribution to the SeaLetter!

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