"If you want to do it, you can do it," Beverly Nelson says about traveling with a disability. First diagnosed with multiple sclerosis nearly 20 years ago, she continues to enjoy traveling aboard cruise ships, especially small, expedition-oriented vessels.
"[Cruising] is the best way to travel--the only way to get a wonderful vacation, see a lot of different places and not exhaust yourself," she says.
Since most cruise lines are foreign-flagged, they are not required to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. But some lines have gone the extra distance to make it more comfortable and accessible for disabled travelers,
Recently, aboard Carnival's new smoke-free Paradise (a good example of a cruise line going the extra mile), we met passengers with seeing-eye dogs, portable oxygen tanks, dialysis equipment and various types of wheelchairs with occupants ranging in age from 8 to 80. The ship offers wheelchair-accessible cabins, wide corridors and full elevator access to deck areas and public rooms.
Wheelchair-using passengers are rarer aboard smaller ships such as Silversea's 296-passenger Silver Cloud, where we first met Beverly Nelson when she scooted in aboard an electric wheelchair to join our trivia quiz team.
A longtime activist for the disabled and a contributor to specialized publications such as "Access," "PN News for Paralyzed Veterans" and "Open Door," published by SATH (Society for the Advancement for the Handicapped), Nelson also edits and publishes a newsletter titled The Very Special Traveler (P.O. Box 756, New Windsor, MD 21776; telephone  635-2881; $25 a year for six issues).
"Everything I write about, I have done," she says. While she aims to keep her newsletter "cheerful, upbeat and encouraging," she's also relentlessly practical, recommending "planning, planning and more planning" before setting out.
Alaska is an ideal first cruise for wheelchair passengers who want to spend some time ashore, since towns and cities have curb cuts to access sidewalks and street crossings, unlike many foreign ports.
What's a good cruise for beginners? Nelson considers Alaska an ideal first cruise for wheelchair passengers who want to spend some time ashore, since towns and cities in the 49th state have curb cuts to access sidewalks and street crossings, unlike many foreign ports.
She also suggests that wheelchair travelers call the cruise line and see if there is an available loaner wheelchair aboard if they don't want to bring their own.
Here are some of her tips for disabled travelers shopping for a cruise:
* It's important to consult a travel agent who specializes in services for the disabled. (See below for a list of some agencies.)
* See if there's easy access on and off the ship; this is the hardest thing to come by, she says. "There are people who'll carry you up and down the gangway."
* Look for accessible rooms. "The door must be wide enough to get into [with a wheelchair], and there should be room to turn around in the room."
* Look for accessible bathrooms, either without a raised sill or with a small ramp over the sill. "You may want a raised toilet with a grab bar around it, and--the most wonderful thing--a roll-in shower with a hand-held shower nozzle, as well as a raised sink so you can roll in under it."
* Be upfront with the travel agent about your bathroom needs. "Don't let them play games, because you're going to be the one who's going to be hurt, not him."
* All public rooms and some deck areas should be wheelchair accessible.
* Look for wide corridors. "I had a wonderfully accessible room on one ship, but it was all the way at the far end, so I had trouble scooting around cleaning carts and vacuum cleaners."
* If you plan to take an electric scooter, remember that the battery has to be recharged every other night, so be sure the ship has a compatible plug convenient to your cabin.
* Remember that it's the captain's call as to whether the seas are safe or not for a wheelchair passenger to be carried down the gangway to go ashore via a tender boat; you may want to avoid a cruise if most ports are reached by tender.
For more information, ask your travel agent to check the current Cruise Lines International Assn. Cruise Manual, which carries a chart detailing facilities aboard.
Individual cruise lines such as Los Angeles-based Crystal Cruises, tel. (800) 820-6663, and Princess Cruises, tel. (800) PRINCESS, also publish detailed information for access to on-board facilities on each of the line's ships.
Princess, for instance, requires disabled passengers to notify the line in writing when the use of a wheelchair is necessary, and passengers must provide their own wheelchairs. For the hearing impaired, text telephone equipment is available when requested at the time of booking, as well as a kit with telephone amplifiers, visual smoke detectors, door knocker sensors and other aids. Elevators are equipped with Braille call buttons and audible arrival sounds.
Travel agencies specializing in tours and cruises for the disabled include Accessible Journeys, Ridley Park, Pa., tel. (800) TINGLES; Flying Wheels Travel, Owatonna, Minn., tel. (800) 535-6790; Access First, Randolph, Mass., tel. (800) 557-2047; Cobb Travel Agency, Birmingham, Ala., tel. (205) 822-5137; Marilyn's World at Dupont Plaza Travel, Los Angeles, (323) 969-0660; Tri Venture Travel, Redding, tel. (530) 243-3101; and Nautilus Tours & Cruises Ltd., Woodland Hills, Calif., tel. (818) 591-3159.