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Cruise Lines, Disabled Spar Over Accessibility

A California woman's suit says U.S. law should apply. Foreign operators dispute that claim.

September 28, 2004|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

EL SOBRANTE, Calif. — Dorene Giacopini is embroiled in a national legal debate that could affect millions of Americans, particularly as baby boomers age. The issue: whether foreign-flagged cruise ships operating out of U.S. ports must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act to accommodate people like her.

The special education mediator from this Bay Area suburb uses a wheelchair and had researched her vacation carefully, settling on an Alaskan cruise operated by Los Angeles-based Crystal Cruises.

Crystal had assured Giacopini that most of the Crystal Harmony was accessible. She had hoped to zip around the ship to attend to her 88-year-old mother. Instead, she says, she was rendered helpless.

Workers had to set up and dismantle ramps just so she could reach the buffet and poolside grill, she said. When no ramps were in place, she took her chances backing her chair over jutting thresholds. On one occasion, she tipped backward, smacking her head on the floor.

Giacopini sued in U.S. District Court. But a judge dismissed her case this summer without hearing evidence, widening a legal rift of growing consequence to the cruise ship industry and the booming disabled-consumer market.

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which sits in Florida, ruled in 2002 that the ships must comply with the act. This year, the 5th Circuit, in Texas, said the ships don't have to, since doing so would impose U.S. law on nations, such as Liberia, that flag the vessels.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce as early as today whether it will take up the Texas case.

If it does, Giacopini will watch from the sidelines. If it doesn't, she will press ahead with her appeal in the 9th Circuit in San Francisco.

"If [cruise ships are] high end, most of their customers are older; and they [operators] tell you they're accessible -- you figure they're accessible," said Giacopini, 44, who was born with the neural tube defect spina bifida.

The cruise ship companies fly flags of some of the world's least regulated countries on most, if not all, of their vessels, but do much of their business out of U.S. ports. The ability of such ships to avoid compliance with U.S. environmental law has created controversy. The question of compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act extends that debate into the civil rights arena.

"You couldn't bring a cruise ship into San Francisco port and say, 'No blacks here, no women allowed on the seventh floor,' " said Giacopini attorney Kevin Knestrick, of the Oakland-based Disability Rights Advocates. "But that's really what's happening here. She literally couldn't go to certain parts of the ship."

Industry officials, including a Crystal spokeswoman, say they welcome disabled passengers and have made great strides to accommodate them. Some cruise lines actively court the market.

However, the companies steadfastly maintain that they are not mandated to comply with the landmark 1990 U.S. law that forbids discrimination against the disabled in public accommodations and on commercial transportation. Even if the act did apply, they say, they would not be required to make physical changes to the ships because the U.S. departments of Justice and Transportation, which oversee implementation of the statute, have not issued regulations mandating specific changes.

The legal confusion is creating havoc for disabled customers and for cruise lines: Because of the conflicting court decisions, passengers who board in Florida have rights that others who roll onto the same ship in Houston do not. Those like Giacopini who board in California have no idea what their rights are.

"This is one of those [situations] where you want to do the right thing," said Michael Crye, president of the Virginia-based International Council of Cruise Lines, which has joined Texas plaintiffs and defendants and the Justice Department in asking for U.S. Supreme Court review. "But you need to know what the right thing is."

The Travel Industry Assn. of America estimates that 24% of the U.S. population will be disabled by 2030, as baby boomers age. Cruise ship travel is touted by all sides as well-suited to the mobility-impaired. Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Lines and Holland America are among those lauded for doing the most, said Jani Nayar, executive coordinator of the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality. Several now provide a lift that lets wheelchairs on and off tender boats when docking with a ramp is not feasible.

New ships are being built with extra-wide cabin doorways and other accommodations, Crye said. But the vessels still must include watertight compartments and fire zones to stop flames. That often means raised thresholds and doors that close automatically.

Advocates for the disabled concede that safety should not be jeopardized but emphasize that much can be done to make reasonable accommodation for the disabled, as the law requires.

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