Cruises gaining in popularity with disabled travelers

LA Times | Travel

William Floria sat while four crew members lifted him, wheelchair and all, into the cruise ship's tender. As he looked at the water surging against the 77,700-ton ship and the small boat that would take him ashore, he said, \"I'm just praying they don't drop me.\" His broad smile reflected his...

By Lora Crommett // 01.21.09

William Floria sat while four crew members lifted him, wheelchair and all, into the cruise ship's tender. As he looked at the water surging against the 77,700-ton ship and the small boat that would take him ashore, he said, "I'm just praying they don't drop me."

His broad smile reflected his excitement and anticipation at visiting Kona, one of several ports of call on his Hawaiian Islands itinerary.

Not all disabled travelers are as adventurous as Floria, 31, but he and his mother, Oralee, refuse to let cerebral palsy keep him home. He is one of the growing number of disabled travelers embarking on vacations that would have been a struggle just a few years ago.

As many as 15 million people with disabilities travel regularly, the Travel Industry Assn. of America says. Many of those choose cruising as one of the more accessible and safer modes of travel, thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Although the ADA was passed in 1990, it was 15 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that foreign-flagged cruise lines needed to make their ships more accessible to physically challenged travelers.

Newer vessels are designed with fully accessible staterooms featuring wide doorways with level entries and roll-in bathrooms with shower stools, emergency call buttons and lowered sinks. Access to restaurants, theaters showrooms and other public areas is provided so travelers are no longer limited to any one section of the ship.

Here is some of what you need to know to successfully cruise.

* Booking reservations early is important if you require a handicap-equipped stateroom. Each ship differs in the number, size and location of accessible rooms, some with as few as four and some 10 times that many.

Travelers with disabilities are asked to complete a special needs form when booking to ensure that all needs can be met onboard and to make sure that suppliers can fill equipment orders.

* Be sure to inquire specifically about your disability. Not all physically challenged travelers require the same amenities. If you use a narrow wheelchair or scooter and don't need as much room to maneuver or don't require bathroom adaptations, a regular stateroom might be fine.

The needs of visually impaired travelers are quite different from those with other access issues, starting with any service animals they may use. Handrails along walls and stairways help guide guests as they navigate the decks, but an inconsistency in the location of Braille signage can be disconcerting, and markers differ from ship to ship. It's helpful to request a tour of the ship to become familiar with your surroundings.

Cruise ships generally can accommodate those who have hearing loss, the most common disability, with a variety of assistive devices, including TTY (teletypewriter) and TDD (telecommunication device for the deaf) phone services. Flashing alert lights and vibrating bed alarms often are available. Listening systems in the main theaters provide amplified sound. Sign language interpreting services are available if requested at the time of booking. Just to be sure to ask.

* Be prepared for things that go wrong. Despite the most careful planning and attention to detail, things do go awry. Ellie Bishop, a retired Air Force officer with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease), has been on five cruises, the last one in a wheelchair. She can't speak and has difficulty swallowing, requiring a feeding tube. Her food must be puréed to supplement the tube feedings.

On a recent cruise, the access and guest services representative assured her husband, Mark, that she would be accommodated, so the couple didn't pack their personal food processor.

Fortunately, Mark did bring two cases of Ensure, which became Ellie's staple food until they could meet with the ship's master chef and the hotel director -- 1 1/2 days after they set sail. Although the staff tried to provide puréed food for Ellie for the rest of the 15-day cruise, she found it flavorless. So, Mark bought soups and other items, such as mashed and sweet potatoes, at each port so Ellie could have some variety.

Despite the hassles, Mark said they would continue cruising. "Ellie can enjoy seeing the world and enjoy cruising while she can . . . the wonderful entertainment, the lectures and art shows, and watching the sunrise and sunset from our balcony."

* Allow plenty of notice for those situations that require very special arrangements.

If you use oxygen, for instance, you must adhere to the cruise line's rules. All cruise ships have oxygen for medical emergencies, but not for routine treatment. Some guests bring oxygen as a carry-on; others order oxygen from a provider and have it delivered to their stateroom. All containers must be clearly marked with the name of the ship, sail date and stateroom number. The vendor's name and phone/fax numbers, and type of oxygen and quantity are also required.

Dialysis also requires special accommodation. The ship must have detailed information about whether peritoneal dialysis or hemodialysis is required. Cruise ships usually can't provide hemodialysis onboard, so guests must receive that treatment from an outside vendor such as Dialysis at Sea. With sufficient lead time, the cruise ship can make arrangements.

* Be honest about your limitations, especially when planning shore excursions. Work with the ship's staff to assess which tours are most suited to your needs, taking into consideration the amount of walking or climbing involved and the type of terrain.

If you use a wheelchair or scooter, find out whether the tour vehicle is wheelchair-accessible. Ask the staff to confirm that the bus or van has a lift as well as tie-downs so you don't roll around. Check what bathroom accommodations are available, especially if the tour is several hours long.

Older cities often have cobblestone streets or sidewalks that lack curb cuts, which create a potential problem if you can't maneuver a walker or wheelchair. In some cases, it's recommended that you switch to a lightweight, manual wheelchair. Motorized wheelchairs and scooters often are too heavy to use in certain conditions.

* Inquire whether the ship will dock at a pier, or whether tendering ashore is required. This information can make a difference when deciding to go ashore or pass up a particular port.

John Rusterholtz, hotel director on Celebrity's Mercury, said that during normal conditions, most disabled passengers can make the tender transfer without incident. "We do everything we can to help them, but they have to know there's a risk factor," he said. "The sea is unpredictable -- and the weather can change. In some ports, and in some conditions, the pier may be too high and the tender too low, but we can't change both."

* If you must stay behind, take advantage of the onboard entertainment options, such as shopping, flower arranging, basking in the sun and even using the pool. Some newer ships have pool lifts to enable guests with mobility concerns to take a dip.

For Will Floria, the music and dancing -- yes, in his wheelchair -- were a highlight. Why go ashore at every port when you can spin around the dance floor with a pretty cruise director?