Surgery left my 82 year old mother paralyzed. Overnight the world of the wheelchair became our reality. Ten years of helping my mother left me with a deep and sincere appreciation for what it takes to ‘get by’ when one has special needs. For the last sixteen years it has been my privilege to work onboard some of the most luxurious cruise ships in the world. During that time, I have welcomed onboard guests on crutches and walkers; with canes and service dogs; and in wheelchairs – including my mother. They arrive with confidence knowing cruising is a vacation they can enjoy!
Upon arrival, every effort is made to make you feel at home. First and foremost, you’ll make fast friends with the reception staff. They are available 24 hours a day and will become your onboard eyes, ears and legs making them invaluable during your stay. The Guests Relations Manager is another important contact; like a Concierge they ensure that your requests are fulfilled. If you asked for special meals or have dietary requirements, the Guest Relations Manager will be your liaison. Be sure to stop by the Tour Manager’s desk to double check on the physical requirements for tours. Tour descriptions are coded based upon level of exertion and include information on mode of transportation, duration, meals, and restroom stops. Last but not least is your stewardess; she and her assistant will provide you with all the extras you may need in your suite from down pillows to a bench or a step.
All ships have cabins with wheelchair access; that means low thresholds, wide bathroom doors, and roll-in showers. This along with special meals should be pre-requested by your travel agent at time of booking. If you have not requested a wheelchair access cabin, you will notice that standard cabins have raised thresholds. This takes getting used to - for everyone! Additionally, standard cabins usually have a shower-tub configuration. Handrails are installed. Shower stools are available. However, elderly, infirm, and sight impaired guests who do not negotiate bathtubs well often request wheelchair access cabins, regardless of whether or not they use a wheelchair.
Once you are settled-in, it’s time to explore all the venues that make sailing on a cruise ship so delightful; theaters, lounges, night clubs, casino, library, computer room, fitness facility, spa, swimming pool, and dining rooms. Getting from place to place notice that passageways are spacious and easily allow for wheelchairs and walkers. Elevators are conveniently located both fore and aft on all ships; with elevators located mid-ship on larger ships. Elevators have Braille signage and many include audio prompts.
Safety is always a concern at sea. International maritime law requires that ships must conform to structural standards for the control of fire and flooding. That’s why thresholds are raised in your cabin and outside doors are heavy or “water tight.” Knowing that thresholds are hard to manage especially when one is in a wheelchair; ramps are installed throughout the ship. Opening of heavy outside doors may still require additional help.
Speaking of help, for your safety and enjoyment, every crew member can be called upon to help. Though most crew would like to feel they can anticipate your every need and desire, sometimes they need to be asked. Feel free. Ask your waitress to serve you a hard to reach selection from the buffet. Need an extra blanket or a bolster? Your stewardess will be happy to find you one or two.
One place where it is necessary to ask for help is getting on and off the ship. Depending on the tide, the gangway is often steep. Crew members are positioned at the top and the bottom to escort you down or up. In addition to the gangway, in many ports when the ship is at anchor small boats or tenders are used for transfer to shore. Again, staff and crew are on duty to assist. They receive constant training in the proper transport of guests under these circumstances. It is not unusual to be carried down the gangway or onto the tender in your wheelchair.
Part of enjoying a cruise is partaking of the wonderful food and great entertainment. Everyone wants to get a good seat for the show. In addition to consideration of guests in wheelchairs, those who have visual or hearing impairment also need accommodation. Front row sections are now set aside on many ships for those guests whose enjoyment will be enhanced by being closer to the stage. The same is true for decks and observation lounges.
For special medical needs, all ships have onboard hospitals some with state of the art monitoring equipment. Even special “dialysis” departures are frequently arranged in association with shore side medical groups. Guests requiring oxygen can make arrangements as well.
Cruise lines realize the potential of the disabled market and are making their ships more and more accessible. Recently Holland-America launched the M/S Zuiderdam and invited representatives from various interests including the disabled market. Jackie Hull of Outta Sight Travel remarked that, “the ship took pride in its accessibility. Every public area and door featured Braille signage.” However after reading a sign in a restroom it was discovered to have been installed upside down! Not wanting their good intentions to be for not, Holland-America asked Jackie and her husband Gary Metzler along with his guide dog Dr. John, to sail with the Zuiderdam in order to thoroughly check all Braille signage, menus, information, and audible messages to make sure it was “cruiser friendly.”
Traveling with a guide or service dog need not be a problem. More people use working dogs for assistance and cruise ships are prepared for their presence. Owners are encouraged to bring the dog’s food and any medication in baggies or portion-controlled containers. Toys or treats that will make the dog feel at home when not working also help. And the obvious concern, hygiene, is easily taken care of in a number of ways ranging from papered decks to litter boxes!
Recently, I was onboard the Seven Seas Mariner with a woman who had a service dog. She commented that the dog confused easily once getting off the elevator as all the decks looked the same! In order to orient the dog, a special scent was created on her deck which the dog could identify. This identification will now be implemented fleet-wide whenever working dogs are onboard.
As the fastest growing sector of the travel industry, more people are choosing to cruise than ever before; including travelers with disabilities and special needs. A cruise ship is the perfect place for a safe and relaxing vacation. Regardless of your need, there is a ship out there that is perfect for you!