Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Cruising with a Wheelchair

Alaska Cruise, July 2017
Las Vegas. Florida. Cruise ships.  What do they all have in common?  Old people!  Traditionally, at least (although some of them may be trying to shake that image).  And, probably not coincidentally, they are also quite accessible!   Some friends and I recently celebrated our 50th birthdays on a week-long Alaska cruise.   This was my first vacation without my usual helper (aka my husband), and my disability level had progressed in the past year, so despite my friends' assurances about assisting me (and despite the fact that I knew they had been working out),  I approached the journey with equal parts excitement and trepidation.  By the end of the trip, I felt only exhilaration -- from the things we'd done and seen and from friendships renewed and strengthened.  There was the added sense of accomplishment of a week away from home and husband -- asking for (and receiving) help from friends and strangers.  As it turned out, I only needed help up twice -- once on purpose, and once not so much so!  

For those of you hungry for wheelchair-related details, read on (especially the second half).  For those of you more interested in cruise-related details, check out the first part and then skim on!  For the rest of you, enjoy the pretty pictures!

Norwegian Pearl
We traveled on the Norwegian Pearl, part of the Norwegian Cruise Line's fleet.  The boat accommodates over 2000 guests and over 1000 crew members (stop a moment and consider that ratio to
The first towel creature: Mr Crabby
understand why we got daily animal creations made from folded towels).  We sailed from Seattle, WA on a seven-day, round-trip cruise, stopping at various ports in Southeast Alaska.

After the Orcas, the humpbacks performeed
Juneau: I don't know if you can see
Russia from here, but you can definitely
stock up on diamonds and tanzanite.
We started with Juneau ("We'll be stopping in You Know" said our captain in his Norwegian accent), where we avoided the jewelry stores and went on a whale-watching expedition.

Typical downtown Skagway building,
probably selling souvenirs
Skagway from the dock
We then stopped at Skagway, where we bypassed the tourist train and stocked up on souvenirs in the Gold Rush styled downtown.  The harbor and the scenery nearby were some of the most spectacular of the trip.

Skagway Harbor

Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay

After cruising through Glacier Bay (yes, there are still some glaciers left, but hurry!) ...

New Eddystone Rock in Misty Fjords

... we motored down to Ketchikan, where we took a boat tour of the insane beauty of flora and fauna at Misty Fjords.

Harbor seals in Misty Fjords

Misty Fjords

Butchart Gardens near Victoria
We ended with an evening in Victoria, BC, where we visited Butchart Gardens.  Due to this last stop, we were technically on an international vacation and even needed to bring a passport!

I am not a lawyer; nor do I have much patience for obfuscated answers.  Therefore,  I can only voice the probability, rather than the absolute veracity, of the following statement: Cruise ships -- even those flying foreign flags -- that service US ports are in fact covered by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990).  In large part due to lawsuits against two major cruise corporations, the companies running these "floating hotels" must comply with Title III of the ADA.  In addition, it seems to me that it makes good business sense for companies catering to a wide variety of ages and abilities of guests to offer the inclusivity of  universal design. Whatever the cause, and despite some inefficiencies in carry-through, cruise ships generally offer an accessible travel option for wheelchair users.  In particular, ships built or remodeled after 2010 (the first settlement) should be ADA-compliant and wheelchair accessible.  If you can survive hordes of thousands (there are some quiet spots onboard to which you can escape) and a cruise-ship mentality that would make Julie, the Cruise Director, proud, then cruising offers a wonderful savings of time and energy in planning and traveling with a wheelchair.  All of your accessible transportation, lodging, eating, and entertainment needs are covered.

Threshold at entry to non-ADA cabins

En suite ADA bathroom
No threshold in ADA cabin
All ships must offer a certain percentage of rooms meeting ADA standards (I believe the number is 3%).  The most obvious difference is that these rooms have a level threshold, allowing a wheelchair to pass through (other rooms sport a typical ship threshold at doorways of about 1 1/2 inches).  The other big difference is size -- ADA cabins are larger!  Our room included three beds and was about 300 square feet -- absolutely palatial compared to other inside cabins!  There was room for me to park the wheelchair next to my bed at night, and there were even plenty of electrical outlets nearby.  The shining gem of the ADA room was the en suite ADA bathroom.  The room itself was large enough for a wheelchair to turn around,  The shower was larger than most, with a level threshold, a shower seat, and plenty of safety bars.  The toilet also had horizontal and vertical safety bars.  The sink was a shallow, roll-under variety, and the mirror could be tilted to reflect lower images (people in wheelchairs).

Of course the ship itself was wheelchair accessible.  Our ship (and perhaps all), had a special access desk available to answer questions via phone or email before departure.  I thought there would be some sort of access desk on board, but I never saw one (instead, the guest relations staff expertly answered questions and concerns).  Hallways were wide enough for a wheelchair (though they were a bit tricky on the guest room decks when the housekeeping carts were parked alongside the walls.  The dining room tables were all high enough to fit a wheelchair.   The cafeteria had a few tables designated "disabled," and there were always plenty of staff willing to help reach food/drinks and carry trays.  The communal areas were all accessible, including lounges, bars, walk ways, outside decks, the casino, the disco, the theater, the spa, the game room, the library, the fitness room.  Rooms with multiple levels (the disco, some lounges) had ramps, the spa had massage tables low enough for wheelchair users to transfer onto, and the swimming pool had a lift (not really necessary for an Alaska cruise, since the only day nice enough to be out on the pool deck still saw adults huddled in the sun, wearing down coats).  The theater had half of a row of reserved seats for disabled guests, as well as a special wheelchair seating section.  As far as I could tell, only the hot tubs and the top-level sun deck were not accessible (no lift for the hot tubs and only stairs up to the sun deck).

Public disabled restroom

Level entry to outside decks 

Dining area
"Sunning" on the pool deck on an Alaska cruise
Pool Deck
Drinks in cafeteria were not
within reach, but cruise staff
were always there to help

Massage table in spa: wheelchair height

Theater reserved seats for disabled guests

Wheelchair space in theater
Inaccessible sun deck (not so important on Alaska cruise!)

End of (dis)embarkation ramp 
(Dis)embarkation ramp
I specifically chose an itinerary of ports that excluded tenders, since tendering can limit wheelchairs altogether or at least under certain conditions: if the weather is too stormy, if the chair is too heavy, if the person is unable to transfer him/herself without the chair.   (Dis)embarkation at port docks was no problem.  The deck and steepness of the ramp changed with the port and the tide, but there were always staff available to help the chair get on and off of the ramp.

Wheelchair lift on microbus
for whale-watching tour
The database for shore excursions allowed filtering by disability, and the descriptions included information about mobility requirements.  We chose two boat excursions and one garden tour.  One of the boat excursions began at the dock where the cruise ship parked, so there was difficulty getting there.  The other boat excursion, as well as the garden tour, required about a thirty minute bus ride.  For both excursions, the tour company provided a micro-bus with a wheelchair lift for wheelchair users and their companions.  We got our own private tour of the environs before meeting the others at the departure point or gate.  Both of the boat tours had experience with wheelchairs and had systems in place.  In both cases, I had to transfer to a company wheelchair. Boat #1 said the fire  department required all wheelchairs on board to have three inches of clearance, which mine did not.  Boat #2 claimed that no electrical wheelchairs were allowed, which mine was.  Both of the boats' wheelchairs were sub-optimal -- one had no push rims, and one had foot rests stuck at knee height and twice as long as my legs.  But they were able to get these chairs onto the boat (with the help of a rope when there was a huge difference in dock-to-boat level).  The biggest problem -- and this is a perennial problem for wheelchair users -- was that there was no accessible bathroom.  For the shorter trip this was no problem, but the longer one necessitated conscious dehydration, as well as crossed fingers and legs!

A few final thoughts and tips:

* Most boats are accessible, but "accessible" has different meanings, so before you make reservations be sure to ask specific questions about the dimensions and the things you'd need.  Boats built or remodeled more recently are more likely to have the most accessible features.

* Don't expect the crew to know anything (I waited forever for a crew member to help me unlock a designated disabled bathroom, finally calling her manager, who informed us that all we needed to do was find and press the automatic door button).

* On the other hand, the crew members are very willing to help, so don't be afraid to ask.

* As usual in hotels, the beds are too high.

* Ask about outlets before you travel, and bring an extension cord and/or splitter, if needed.

* If you were promised a swimming pool lift and don't see one, ask (it may be in onboard storage).

* Bring a bed rail
Hallway outside on main deck

* If the inside hallways are carpeted or uneven, travel outside (you may need to take an elevator to a different and even a non-desired floor).
Hallway inside on main deck

* You really need at least two wheelchairs.  Unless you are superman, you would probably want an power chair on the boat.  Distances between fore and aft are truly great, and sometimes you can't avoid traveling on carpet.  I used a portable LiteRider Envy by Golden Technologies.  However, for shore excursions -- especially for boat rides -- you would probably want a manual chair.  Ideally, you would have enough cabin space to store both -- especially if the manual chair folded up somehow.  Even more ideal would be a one-chair combination: a manual chair with some sort of power assist, like a Smart Drive.  At least I think so; I don't have one ... yet.  

Bon Voyage!