Taking a cruise may sound luxurious, but for people with disabilities it can be a logistical nightmare. From making sure a wheelchair can fit through the doors, to finding your way around a ship using tactile braille, it’s almost easier to just stay home.
Things may be getting a little easier for this group. The U.S. Dept. of Transportation has just announced the first federal rule to specifically provide Americans with Disabilities Act protections to people with disabilities who travel on boats and ships. Now, people with disabilities who ride public boats, such as ferries, and private vessels, including cruise ships, will be entitled to better access and accommodations.
Why the new rule? DOT says it wants to make sure that boat and ship operators don’t deny access to passengers based on their disability. They also want to make sure that those passengers, once aboard, are treated fairly, according to DOT’s website. Passengers with disabilities cannot be charged extra for accessibility-related services, such as sign-language interpreters and pool lifts, and will not be required to furnish their own attendants.
The new law also requires boat and ship operators to inform passengers of vessel accessibility and services, and to have a knowledgeable person available to help passengers with disabilities resolve their concerns.
The DOT rules are a boost for the overall industry. For some cruise lines, however, it won’t drastically change the way they operate. That’s because 10 years ago, several top cruise lines including Carnival, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Holland America were slapped with class-action lawsuits by Access Now, a disability organization, who wanted cruise ships’ staterooms and bathrooms to be made handicapped accessible. The ships agreed to make changes, and they now offer staterooms with wider entries, roll-in showers and more room for the wheelchair user to turn around in his or her chair.
Royal Caribbean takes accessibility quite seriously, and has gone above and beyond ADA requirements. For instance, many of their staterooms and balconies are accessible and have automatic doors. Blackjack casino tables are modified for wheelchair users, and the ship provides state of the art hydraulic pool and whirlpool lifts. Like other ships, Royal Caribbean today offers sign language interpreting services for the deaf and cruise directories and menus in braille for the blind.
Even so-called invisible disabilities, such as diabetes, must be considered. Special Needs At Sea, a company based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., provides many cruise lines with oxygen canisters and in-room storage for dialysis equipment. This is important because passengers who need to refrigerate their medicines would otherwise resort to using the mini-bar, which isn’t ideal.
One aspect this rule won’t cover is establishing standards for building new vessels or altering existing vessels. Access Board, an independent agency will consider the rules to be adopted for new ships. This rule also doesn’t apply to private vessels that transport passengers while providing another key service, like charter fishing boats or dinner cruises. However, a Department of Justice rule will cover that group of operators.
The DOT’s new rule takes effect in 120 days. There is a 90-day comment period concerning whether passengers with disabilities should be allowed to bring emotional support animals on board, among other considerations. You can visit www.regulations.gov to add your comments.