The cruise sector has come a long way in addressing accessibility requirements, opening new opportunities for travellers with disabilities. Yet, incidents of exclusion and inadequate provision still occur, and a lack of defined international guidelines means the definition of accessible cruising remains unclear.

The landmark settlement between the US Department of Justice (DoJ) and Carnival Corporation in July 2015 is a case in point. Triggered by passenger complaints – including allegations that the company “failed to properly provide and reserve accessible cabins for individuals with mobility disabilities” – the corporation was to pay $405,000 in penalties and damages. This was the first time the DoJ had required a cruise company to provide a minimum number of such cabins and develop a remediation plan to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Carnival, for instance, must make 3% of cabins on 49 ships accessible according to three defined levels of accessibility.

Currently, all ships calling into US ports must comply with ADA, but ambiguity about exactly what this looks like on board a passenger vessel remains. In their settlement, the DoJ and Carnival referred to ADA’s 2010 Standards for Accessible Design – regulations tailored to landside accommodation. Meanwhile, The Access Board (a US federal agency affiliated with ADA) is working to finalise its Passenger Vessels Accessibility Guidelines (PVAG). These follow the 2010 landside regulations to a large extent, but include several small amendments. The guidelines require governmental approval before they can be finalised and become the official minimum standards enforceable by US Government departments like the DoJ.

This final stage could happen as early as the end of 2017 but, with a new administration in place (and President Trump’s freeze on new regulation), it is likely to take longer yet, leaving something of a grey area for cruise operators looking to expand or renovate their fleets. This includes continuing ambiguity over scoping requirements regarding the precise percentage of accessible cabins required at sea.

Meeting every need

Jan Tuck, access compliance manager at Princess Cruises, is well versed in not only the evolving regulatory environment, but also the gradual change in culture that has seen cruising open up to guests with a range of accessibility requirements. A near 40-year employee at Princess, Tuck is also decorated with many ‘firsts’: she was part of the team that launched Royal Princess, the line’s first ship with accessible cabins, in 1984, and she became the first full-time cruise-line professional to focus on accessibility for passengers with disabilities when named to her current position in 1999. In 2002, Tuck was appointed to the Access Board, serving as chairperson twice in subsequent years.

She has experienced the changing environment on a personal level, too. Paraplegic as the result of a car accident
in her youth, Tuck lays claim to being the first person in a wheelchair to be employed in the cruise industry.

“Part of the problem with the general public and the cruise industry alike is that people don’t realise that ships are not buildings, so you can’t just knock out a wall and make a door bigger,” she reflects. “When I started out, to be able to cruise, I had to transfer to a straight-backed chair when I got to my cabin because the door was so narrow, then fold up my wheelchair and put it in the cabin, and then transfer back into my wheelchair.”

Progress since has been “tremendous”, Tuck feels. With Princess an early leader in accessibility, the creation of ADA in 1991 saw these standards adopted more widely in the industry. Legislation further afield, in the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand to name a few, has also driven improvements.

For Tuck, the biggest breakthrough overall is simply the acceptance of guests with disabilities at sea. But the vestige of past discrimination, and fear of stigma or prejudice means that guests are not always willing to be candid about their needs.

“The biggest challenge is getting people to self-identify,” Tuck says. “I’m sure you can appreciate that, for many years, a person with a disability wouldn’t necessarily want to self-identify, because they were afraid they would be denied – that they wouldn’t be allowed to sail. Discrimination against people with disabilities was previously quite strong, because people were uninformed of what the requirements are.”

Today, Princess and several other lines provide an online form with a detailed questionnaire asking guests to outline their precise needs so that these can be met.

Navigating the waters

Often found supporting cruise ships and passengers to fulfil such requirements is Special Needs at Sea, part of Special Needs Group (SNG). Providing equipment in more than 155 cities and 30 countries worldwide, SNG this year celebrates its tenth anniversary within the cruise sector. While primarily serving guests directly – delivering medical oxygen or rented mobility equipment to ships, for example – SNG also supplements cruise lines’ existing on-board equipment when required. This could be Braille menus, alert kits (in-room notification systems for passengers with hearing impairments); or mulch for the small on-board rest areas, allowing ships to support service animals such as guide dogs.

For the company’s CEO and president, Andrew Garnett, self-identification is a particularly important topic when it comes to guests with age-related special needs, who make up a large part of SNG’s clientele.

“The majority of our customers don’t consider themselves to have a disability,” he says. “It’s the people who can’t stand as long as they used to or walk as far, and maybe the doctor has prescribed oxygen for them to use while they’re sleeping because they have COPD or sleep apnoea. If you were to ask them if they have a disability, they would tell you ‘no’; but, in order for them to travel and enjoy their trips, they need this type of equipment.”

"There’s sometimes embarrassment and a fear of the unknown, which can be strong with people with disabilities. Our groups give them confidence."

With ships getting larger, guests may also find themselves needing to walk more than usual, causing them to require additional oxygen or opt to hire a scooter.

The number of people with disabilities is growing, too, due to ageing populations and a global increase in chronic health conditions. The number of older people with care needs in the UK is predicted to rise by 61% by 2030, according to the King’s Fund.

While recent years have seen the cruise industry opening up to younger demographics, the extent to which ships can cater to an ageing baby-boomer generation will play a vital part in cruise revenues in the future. Garnett sees the growing accessibility of the sector as due, in no small part, to a realisation of this.

“I think the cruise industry, along with other industries, was [initially] reluctant to embrace this sector because it was thinking in terms of additional costs associated with ramps, grab bars and things along those lines,” Garnett says. “But as the population has aged, it has become more of a revenue centre for it.”

If grandma’s needs aren’t met on board, Garnett says, the whole family will go elsewhere – not least because, these days, she may well be paying for everyone.

Empowered travellers

SNG has also established a free CLIA-recognised online training certification for accessible travel, in response, Garnett explains, to repeat enquires from travel agents wanting to get involved in the sector but not knowing where to start.

It’s an opportunity that might have resonated with US-based travel agent Debra Kerper nearly 25 years ago, when
she first set out to serve the special needs travel market. Kerper found herself in the library with only a handful of relevant books and ended up calling the authors of each to find out more. Today, she is one of the leading experts in accessible travel, having built up her business Easy Access Travel, part of the Cruise Planners group.

While she’s encouraged by growing interest in the sector, she also feels that her experience, as a person with a disability – Kerper has been a below-knee amputee since the age of 29 and became a bilateral amputee last year – means she often finds opportunities where others may not.

“Living this life and travelling as a disabled person makes it very real to me,” she says. “If you ask someone without a disability, ‘could I go to Paris?’, they might say, ‘oh no, it would be terrible; there’s no way you could get around Paris.’ Well, I can set up a very successful trip to Paris for a client with a disability.”

Future focus

While the majority of the industry is doing a “bang-up job”, Kerper says, there is always room for improvement, with some lines doing better than others. Serving on the advisory board for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, these brands rank particularly highly among her guests, alongside Princess, Holland America and Norwegian.

Kerper has also run a number of group trips, starting with a cruise holiday for amputees in 2012. The dynamics, she says, are ‘magic’.

“We never focus on our limitations, that’s number one – we focus on our abilities,” she explains. “It’s about having fun, but people who join my groups are initially looking for that comfort zone: a lot of the guests I work with weren’t born with a disability and it’s a big adjustment. There’s sometimes embarrassment and there’s a fear of the unknown, which can be very strong with people with disabilities – so our groups give them that confidence.”

Kerper sees excursions as enjoying the biggest recent growth in the accessibility stakes. However, those that fall short remain a sticking point, whether it’s tender ports not permitting mobility vehicles, ground transportation off limits to wheelchairs, or – Kerper’s biggest bugbear – landside accommodation. Often, she says, the number of available accessible hotel rooms doesn’t match the number of accessible cabins on the ship.

When it comes to destinations getting it right, Alaska is foremost for Kerper, with many fully accessible hotel rooms, attractions, trains (such as the popular excursion at Skagway) and even whale-watching boat trips.

“The travel industry needs to know that people no longer stay home when they become disabled or ill – they want to travel,” Kerper says. “So if operators give them the opportunity, if they have the cabins, if they have the activities – people are going to do it.”

Kerper and Tuck are keen to emphasise that improving accessibility benefits all travellers, each citing curb cuts as an example of a development that has helped not only wheelchair users but many other groups too: parents with pushchairs, the elderly and bicycle users.

As the cruise industry continues to grow in terms of its accessibility offering, structural and procedural alike, the benefits to guests will be wide-reaching.