Travellers with special needs see the benefits of taking a cruise because many ships now have accessible features for people with physical, sight and hearing disabilities. The lines are not only satisfying these travellers, but aging boomers also appreciate the modifications.
“Cruise lines are doing a very good job at meeting or exceeding the requirements that allow people with disabilities to travel,” says Roberta Schwartz, director of education for the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH), a leading non-profit organization that works with the cruise industry.
“The rule of thumb is that the newer the ship, the more accessible it will probably be. But it’s not only for mobility issues, it’s also for people who have hearing and vision impairments.”
Schwartz says most major lines such as Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Princess, Holland America, Norwegian and others have shown their commitment to accessible travel.
“The industry has recognized that not only is this an important market, but there’s a demographic shift of people who are aging and have more disabilities, whether they call themselves disabled or not,” says Schwartz.
“With ships getting bigger, just walking from one end to another requires some people who may not normally use a wheelchair to need one.”
About one per cent of the cabins on new ships are usually accessible. “The new Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Seas will have more than any other ship – 46 accessible cabins,” says Schwartz. That’s 1.7 per cent of cabins based on the 5,400-passenger ship that’s scheduled to launch this winter.
“Cruise lines are also offering a wider range of categories for accessible cabins,” says Schwartz. “They aren’t just offering ones on lower decks or an ocean view cabin. There are accessible family suites and ones with balconies now.”
One of the Crown Loft Suites on the Oasis has its own private elevator to access the loft level of the 737-square-foot, two-storey stateroom.
For information on what cruise ships offer, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has a Special Interest Guide for Wheelchair Travelers on its website (www.clia.org) that details ship information.
The guide includes the number of wheelchair-accessible staterooms, number of decks with ramps, whether the elevators accommodate full-size wheelchairs and whether a disabled traveller must be accompanied by an able-bodied companion.
In general, restaurants, theatres, spas, lounges, casinos, open deck space and elevators are wheelchair accessible.
Cabins tend to follow guidelines set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) even though most ships are foreign-flagged and don’t have to comply.
Features include widened doorways, wheel-in showers, hand-held shower heads and bath distress alarms, lowered closet railings, sinks and handrails and revamped thresholds. Shower stools, toilet-seat raisers and bed sideboards are sometimes available.
Guests with sight and hearing disabilities will find ships equipped with Braille elevator call buttons, audible arrival sounds and infrared listening assistance systems in the theatres.
All-inclusive kits featuring telephone amplifiers, visual smoke detectors, door knock sensors, text telephones (TTY) and other aids are available on some ships.
Some ships also allow service animals such as guide- and hearing-assistance dogs.
Special health services such as kidney dialysis machines and oxygen tanks can be available when arrangements are made in advance.
Getting on and off the ship is relatively easy when it’s docked and ramps are installed, but at some ports, tenders are used to transport passengers to shore.
“Many ports aren’t accessible, so it’s best to choose an itinerary with ports that have docks,” Schwartz says. “If not, some ships have a special lift to get a wheelchair on a tender. But it may only be doable if the person has a small wheelchair. It’s also at the discretion of the officials because the weather might not make it safe.”
If medical attention is required, most ships have one doctor for every 1,000 passengers and one nurse for every 250 guests.
Tele-medicine is evolving so that a live, two-way video link can be made. This virtual emergency room allows radiographs, X-rays, EKGs and other physiologic signals to be transmitted via satellite to a hospital.
Many lines have established relationships with medical institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, University of Texas Medical Branch, University of Miami School of Medicine/Jackson Memorial Hospital and others.
Always check with your doctor before planning a cruise and consult with the cruise line accessibility managers to make sure you are abiding by the line’s terms and conditions regarding your health and they can accommodate your needs.
Even pregnancy is considered a medical condition and the cruise line should be notified.
For more information call CLIA at 1-800-327-9501, ext. 70025 or SATH at 1-212-447-7284.