This all came about because of a Supreme Court case in 2005. In Spector et al vs. Norwegian Cruise Line, the court was asked to decide whether or not the Americans with Disabilities Act applied to passenger cruise vessels, and specifically, if U.S. rules could be applied to ships that were registered in foreign countries. NCL's case concerned a passenger who felt he was being discriminated against because he had to purchase a more expensive cabin than he wanted (to accommodate his disability), and because he believed that the barriers on the ship prevented him from enjoying the same experience that able-bodied passengers were able to have. So he sued.
This was a very important case, because if Spector et. al. triumphed, it would mean that ships would have to make very significant changes to accommodate disabled travelers (including the items proposed below, as well as having to make major structural alterations). Ultimately, the Court ruled against NCL, deciding that even foreign-flagged ships that enter U.S. waters are subject to the provisions of the ADA. That ruling was an important first step.
Should this next step -- the DOT's proposal -- be adopted, look for significant changes. For instance, in Cruise Critic's Editor's Picks: Best Cruises for Physically Challenged Passengers, there are two bulleted comments following the introduction that could become obsolete (one states that all guests with special needs must contact the Special Services Department of the ship on which they plan to cruise; the other says that all cruise lines suggest -- if not outright require -- that special needs guests travel with a companion or attendant). Under the new proposal, these requirements would not be permitted since they set differing rules for guests with disabilities and are therefore prejudicial.
The DOT's proposal is broad, with the goal of eliminating any discrimination in the handling of special-needs guests. Some of the issues it addresses are:
A guest with special needs would no longer have to identify himself or herself by registering with a "Special Care" desk at a cruise line prior to traveling.
A cruise line could not demand that a guest travel with a companion or attendant if he or she felt that one was not needed; if the cruise line determined that one was needed, it would have to provide one or allow free passage for an attendant chosen by the guest.
Assistive devices -- such as electric wheelchairs and scooters -- as well as service animals are to be allowed without question.
Guests with disabilities are not be forced to sign a waiver of liability as a condition of passage.
The reservation process and all information will be fully available to deaf and blind passengers.
No accommodation or assistance will carry a charge higher than that which an able-bodied person would pay.
Again, the physical structures, barriers and architecture will be addressed by the U.S. Access Board at a later time; the current proposal simply deals with matters relating to discrimination.
At this point, these proposals are under review and subject to comments from the cruise lines, the ICCL and individuals until April 23, 2007. You can read the entire filing by going to dms.dot.gov, entering docket number 26829, and then clicking on the .pdf file on the right-hand side.
Cruise Critic will be following these developments and will continue to report on them.
--by San Diego-based Jana Jones, who is the creator and editor of lodging Web site Sleeping-Around.com, as well as one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.