“Accessible” Cruises?

A travel writers says that not all cruise ships are in compliance with the American With Disabilities Act.

Something has gone terribly astray with cruise vessels using American ports of call regarding compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). There is always room for error, but some of the mistakes are incredibly difficult to understand, especially on a cruise vessel barely 12 months old.

Older cruise ships have been in compliance (for the most part) during the past four-plus years per the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on June 6, 2005, for cruise vessels (floating hotels) to comply with ADA so long it is readily achievable and feasible. It is difficult for me to understand why a new vessel would not meet full compliance.

For example, boarding ramps vary; at some ports of call, the “ramp” may even be steps, prohibiting some people with disabilities (PWD) using mobility devices to access the port or land tour.  Why is this a hidden disclosure when the cruise line or accommodating agent confirmed the reservation for a person using a mobility device?

Prior to reaching a port of call (usually a day or two before), PWD using mobility devices are told they “will not be allowed to go on a land tour due to safety reasons,” with no further explanation. These passengers typically become disgruntled, stay on board the ship, and complain to other passengers until word finally reaches ears that will listen—not necessarily those of the ship’s staff.

Other Challenges

Expected land tours are not the only problem for PWD on old as well as new cruise vessels. Issues include heavy, solid-wood doors we typically cannot open without automation; corridors much too narrow to accommodate mobility devices; swimming pools that show no visible accommodations for PWD; and decks restricting travel by someone using wheels instead of legs. But let’s take one step at a time and go through this list.

  • Why can’t heavy solid-wood doors be readily installed or retrofitted with automatic door openers so we can move a bout as freely as people without disabilities, when cruise ships typically go to extravagant measures to assure every single room on a cruise vessel is occupied? Why should we have to ask for assistance to have an exterior or even an interior door opened for us?
  • Why would a new cruise vessel be built without considering corridor width and areas for parking housekeeping or other carts in order to allow PWD using mobility devices to pass through without having to wait for someone to move a cart? What does building a new (and rather large) cruise vessel have to do with feasibility? Clearly, on an older vessel, widening corridors could be considered not readily achievable, but most often I seldom had to wait; a steward was always nearby to readily assist me with barriers in my path. This was simply not the case for my fall travel on a new cruise ship.
  • Cruise lines are keenly aware of the requirement for swimming-pool access and lift requirements for PWD. But on this (basically) brand-new vessel, the pool lift was completely out of sight, tucked away in a closet, with no signage of it even being present. When I asked whether a pool lift was available, I was told I had to schedule an appointment. (What?) And I was not the only person told the same thing. To me, an unacceptable answer is not an answer. We had not many sailing days without land tours, and I wanted to go for a swim. The pool lift (though I thought rather flimsy) was finally set up—and I used it.

But the not-so-funny part was seeing it removed rather quickly after I finished my swim. The reason was to “avoid children playing on it.” If that was the case, why did the lift not contain a bold sign, and an obvious sign for PWD who wondered if a lift were provided per ADA?

  • According to ADA, discrimination on the basis of disability by public accommodations and in commercial facilities is simply not acceptable. In brief, the same or similar accommodations used by people without disabilities are to be offered to PWD. This includes all entertainment and all decks on cruise vessels.


A staff member said he would guide me to an area where I could take photos. But we discovered barriers that blocked my entry (on wheels). He was embarrassed, and I was rather disappointed.

A ramp on a new cruise vessel appeared to have an incline greater than a 40° angle. This provided a shorter climb for walking passengers, but it was potentially a big disaster for someone using wheels. In fact, it apparently was a disaster, and the crew knew it!

This newer cruise vessel made her maiden voyage to several ports of call, and at each “First Call” a short, steep ramp was deployed from the ship. Having traveled sufficiently, I had my trusty manual wheelchair as a backup (as long as someone could push and/or transfer me), and I gladly accepted any tour at a port where someone would transfer my bones.

In each case of my leaving the newly built vessel for a land tour, two crewmembers assisted with the manual wheelchair—one guiding and holding it from the front, and the other holding onto the rear “push bars” to transport the chair down the steep ramp to the pavement. More critical was the dockside pavement, which brought an unexpected abrupt level surface. Two crewmembers assisted with maneuvering the wheelchair back inside the vessel, facing forward instead of backward, to the top of the ramp. In truth, there was no way I could physically maneuver the wheelchair up the ramp. It would take a very strong athlete to do so.

I was familiar with the first port, but unlike on a previous cruise, there was no “tractor wheelchair” with a headrest. Thank heaven I had enough smarts to cuff my neck or bottom of my skull with my hands clasped behind it. A crew member began tipping my wheelchair backward. (As I have a C4–7 cervical injury, I admit I am a wee bit cautious.)

During the second cruise, each of six ports supposedly required I use my manual wheelchair. This left me totally dependent on those escorting me on a tour. To my amazement when I disembarked at one particular port, the tour bus contained a lift!

It was a delight to see another passenger using wheels—a nice gentleman using a power chair. I quickly said aloud, “I wonder why they didn’t let me use my power wheelchair?”

“Be glad you didn’t,” the man answered.

But not until we arrived back at the terminal in Florida did I understand his response. I went crashing down onto the level pavement on the dock from the ship’s ramp at the terminal, with my foot/leg rests at a complete stand-still, dug into a “no motion” mode.

While this vessel often docked alongside piers with narrow docks, there was definitely a need for the shorter ramp. But I fail to understand why a longer “L” shaped ramp was not considered instead, when most all piers allowed two vessels to dock alongside it at the same time. The length of such a ramp would have provided the convenience to free deck hands, independence for PWD, and a safer means for passengers not using mobility devices.

On the bright side, during my 2009 cruises, all 11 ports of call eagerly welcomed my wheels, with the exception of one that turned out to be a very good experience. All ports of call expect to increase their access for PWD using mobility devices; four offered vehicles with lifts for land tours, while six scheduled tours by standard vehicle and one provided entertainment and a barbecue. At most all ports, taxis and rental cars were plainly visible just beyond the terminal gate.

The fact that land tours are becoming more available and ports are indeed accessible is good reason to continue using ships that comply with U.S. federal law. The problem is in finding fully accessible ones.


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