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The ADA and Cruise Ships:
Separating Fact From Fiction

On June 6, 2005 the US Supreme Court handed down a long awaited ruling regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and cruise ships. In what’s considered a landmark civil rights decision on Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line, the High Court ruled that the ADA does indeed apply to foreign flagged cruise ships that call on US ports. That’s a fact. Unfortunately there was also a good deal of fiction reported in the media free-for-all that followed this much-publicized decision.

Although many media outlets refrained from speculation, some boldly announced that it “would cost the cruise industry billions of dollars in retrofits.” Others announced that “cruise lines would pull out of US ports.” I even read one prediction that the major cruise lines would base themselves in the Bahamas and fly passengers in from Florida. None of these reports were based on the facts of the decision.

The truth is, the decision stopped short of requiring across-the-board barrier removal on all ships. According to Justice Kennedy, structural changes will have to be readily achievable and cannot alter a ship’s design or threaten the safety of passengers or crew.

Thomas Goldstein, who argued the plaintiff’s case before the Supreme Court, agreed that large-scale physical changes and retrofitting will probably not be required, and the ruling will most likely only apply to straightforward structural changes such as grab bars and lower water fountains.

In the end, the specifics will be determined by the lower court, and in the absence of any ADA guidelines for passenger vessels, they will be decided on a case-by-case basis. The US Access Board, the entity charged with creating those ADA guidelines, held several public hearings this summer but has yet to issue those final regulations.

So how accessible are cruise ships today? Well according to Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, “This industry is one of the most accessible industries for special needs passengers.” I wholeheartedly agree!

To be fair, the ships cited in this case are quite old; in fact, they are no longer part of the Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) fleet. Today all the major cruise lines are building more accessible vessels. For example, the newly launched Pride of America features 22 wheelchair-accessible staterooms equipped with roll-in showers. NCL has also improved access ashore. As a result of their 2004 acquisition of Polynesian Adventure Tours, NCL can now provide accessible shore excursions in lift-equipped buses at many of their Hawaiian ports. That’s a huge access upgrade.

Of course access on the high seas is not limited to NCL ships. According to Royal Caribbean International (RCI) President, Adam Goldstein, “Royal Caribbean wants to be the preferred cruise line for people with disabilities.” The company cemented their commitment to access by selecting Jean Driscoll, a respected member of the disability community, to reign as Godmother of the Mariner of the Seas.

Like all of the RCI Voyager class ships, the Mariner of the Seas boasts a wide range of access features, including pool and Jacuzzi lifts, automatic doors and accessible cabins which feature 90-100 square feet of extra space.

Admittedly cruising can present some unique access challenges, such as tender access for wheelchair-users. In most cases wheelchair-users have to be carried aboard tenders. Still, a few cruise lines have voluntarily provided independent tender access for wheelchair-users. Holland America Line was the first cruise line to provide hydraulic tender lifts, which are now installed on nine of their ships.

Considering the current state of access, in the end this Supreme Court decision will probably have very little effect on the physical access of cruise ships. The increased publicity could however lead to an influx of disabled cruise passengers. As a result, even travel agents who don’t routinely book accessible travel may start to see an increase in their disabled clientele.

What do you do if that happens to you? First and foremost, ask a lot of questions about each client’s specific access needs and keep in mind that the newer ships offer the best wheelchair-access. Consult the special needs department of your preferred cruise line for ship access details. And finally, if you are just not comfortable dealing with this niche market, consider referring these clients to an accessible cruise specialist.

The bottom line is, with the aging population and the growing popularity of cruising, travel agents should expect to see more disabled clients. Now is a good time to figure out how you will handle that increase, before the first wheelchair-user rolls into your office.

Candy Harrington is the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of Barrier Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide For Wheelers and Slow Walkers. Visit her blog at for access news, resources and industry updates.