A sight-impaired traveler stood at the rail of the Royal Viking Star with her companion and described for us the differences she could hear, feel and smell between yesterday's call in American Samoa and today's stop in Western Samoa. She never missed being on deck for the arrival and departure in every port.
A mobility-impaired stroke victim in his wheelchair flew bright and intricate kites every afternoon off the afterdeck of Sitmar's Fairsky, cheerfully letting the children and adults who gathered around him take a turn.
Women in wheelchairs went ashore to go shopping in St. Thomas aboard the Norway's stable, 450-passenger tender Little Norway, and another pretty, vivacious woman in a wheelchair was on the disco dance floor night after night on the Nordic Prince.
In Beverly Hills, the Travel Co.'s Marilyn Ryback is putting together an Alaska land/cruise package with Holland America Westours for a group of hearing-impaired travelers, and in Owatonna, Minn., Sharon Schleich at Flying Wheels will book mobility-impaired groups on two Mexico cruises (July and August) and one Caribbean cruise (November) aboard the Fairsky.
36 Million People
More and more of America's estimated 36 million handicapped are booking cruise vacations, either with groups or as independent travelers. Most are experiencing the same pleasurable holiday the other cruise passengers do, but a few report everything from minor inconveniences to major problems.
"While the cabins (on ships) are accessible (for the wheelchair-bound), the toilets themselves are not always accessible," said Bob Zywicki of Whole Person Tours in Bayonne, N.J.
"Some lips for the bathroom doors are five to eight inches high, with doorways 22 inches wide. You can't get a regular wheelchair in that," said Betty Hoffman of Wings on Wheels in Lynnwood, Wash., since 1960 a specialist in travel and tours for the handicapped.
"I don't think (the cruise ships that claim accessibility) have been inspected by people who know about wheelchairs. Most people can get off to the left, but if the door opens in and to the right and the toilet is behind it, there's no way they can use it," Hoffman said.
While some wheelchair travelers with an able-bodied companion will improvise with portable toilet and basin facilities to sail on an inaccessible ship, others are rightly indignant if a travel agent or cruise line promises accessibility and they don't get it.
One big problem seems to be that even many cruise line employees don't know a ship's measurements concerning wheelchair accessibility, so if a uninformed travel agent calls to book a cabin for a client, there's no guarantee that the space will be workable.
Ryback said, "A lot of times I have to eyeball the cabin first to make sure it's accessible. Accessibility doesn't mean just getting through a door, but getting through it into the bathroom and onto the john."
It's important for the client to explain precisely what he needs to the travel agent without embarrassment, and for the agent to transfer that information accurately to the ship, Ryback said.
"The best way for the handicapped to travel is for travel agents all over the world to know what to do. If they don't, call me, and I'll tell them what to do," she said.
Tours for Deaf
At Encino Travel Service, Ruth Shriner conducts tours for the deaf with two hearing interpreters along; one is booked on American Hawaii's Liberte in October through French Polynesia. The office has a TGY machine to receive and return tape digital printouts by phone from the hearing-impaired.
American Hawaii makes arrangements for a safety procedures drill and shore excursions information for the group before sailing time.
Hoffman offers this advice to handicapped travelers considering a cruise:
"First, be very honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do, and pass that information on (to the travel agent.)
"Second, be sure your doctor says you're in a good condition to travel.
"Third, take it very easy. Don't worry about missing a half-day of sightseeing somewhere.
"Do take along an aide or companion. I have a list of retired nurses who'll go along to care for a handicapped person in exchange for their traveling expenses."
A few other tips: Seeing-eye dogs are accepted on some ships. Each case has to be individually arranged with the cruise line.
Going ashore by tender, in many cases, may be difficult or impossible for a wheelchair passenger, so notice must be paid as to which ships usually anchor rather than dock in ports. (The Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Norway are exceptions, because their big tenders fit flush with the loading doors, as a rule.)
For information contact:
Encino Travel Service, 16660 Ventura Blvd., Encino 91436; (818) 788-4118.
Flying Wheels, Box 382, Owatonna, Minn. 55060; (800) 533-0363.
Wings on Wheels, 19505-L 44th Ave., Lynwood, Wash. 98036; (206) 776-1184.
Whole Person Tours, Box 1084, Bayonne, N.J. 07002-1084; (201) 858-3400.
The Travel Co. of Beverly Hills, (Marilyn Ryback, consultant for the handicapped traveler), 9763 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 556-1818.