James Keskeny, 66, of Pinckney, Michigan, has multiple sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair. On February 18, he was ordered off a Bare Necessities Tour & Travel nude charter cruise in Guadeloupe, where he had to pay $1,500 for travel arrangements home. Keskeny said he paid in excess of $4,000 for the cruise. The story was first reported by the Oakland Press, a Detroit area news outlet.
On Monday, Celebrity Cruises confirmed the details to Cruise Critic, saying in a statement that the debarkation was necessary because Keskeny needed help getting into and out of bed and using the bathroom (where he suffered a fall) -- "special assistance above and beyond what is provided to our disabled or wheelchair-bound guests." Bare Necessities founder Nancy Teimann agreed that Keskeny's needs were extensive: "He needed help every time he had to get out of bed and go to the bathroom, every time he needed to take a bath."
On the third day of the cruise, Celebrity officials told Keskeny he would have to hire a private-duty nurse at his own expense if he wished to remain on the 10-night Southern Caribbean cruise. He declined and was debarked the next day.
In an interview with Cruise Critic, Keskeny argued that he would not have required extra help with the bathroom and bed had his accommodations been compliant with stipulations set forth by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), as advertised by the line. Specifically, Keskeny said, issues arose because the bed and toilet in his "accessible Sky Suite" -- Cabin 1200, which comes with butler service -- were significantly lower than a wheelchair and not designed to ADA standards. He said he knew the toilet was shorter than ADA guidelines because of past experience with other facilities.
According to the Oakland Press story, a "non-ADA-compliant lip" at the entrance of his cabin bathroom also posed problems for Keskeny. When he asked the butler to help him get his wheelchair over lip, the butler refused. Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez told us there was no "lip" to go into the bathroom in Keskeny's suite. Keskeny clarified the "lip" description to Cruise Critic, calling it a slight rise in the carpet -- which he was able to surmount with difficulty -- and more of a "low priority" problem.
Celebrity spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez stated that Keskeny's suite is fully ADA compliant. Richard Bernstein, the attorney representing Keskeny pro bono, disputed the claim, telling Cruise Critic that a site inspection will be necessary.
In order to call a cabin "ADA Compliant," it must meet certain ADA Standards for Accessible Design, which some legal experts argue are not mandatory at this time for foreign-flagged vessels like Celebrity Century. The latest Standards for Accessible Design dictate that a toilet must be between 17 and 19 inches tall. On Celebrity's Web site, the toilet in Cabin 1200 is listed as 18 inches tall, within compliance. There are no codified height requirements for beds.
This is where it gets complicated. Foreign-flagged vessels are subject to the ADA per the landmark 2005 Supreme Court case, Spector vs. Norwegian Cruise Line. At this time, however, there are no codified, enforceable structural standards (ADA Standards for Accessible Design) that explicitly mention cruise ships. Currently, there are only non-mandatory "draft guidelines" pertaining specifically to cruise ships -- the so-called Passenger Vessel Accessible Guidelines or PVAG. The legal questions posed by experts -- "What does ADA compliance mean, structurally, on a cruise ship?" and "Which standards or guidelines do cruise lines have to follow to be ADA compliant?" -- are broader questions to be explored in another story (and a potential court case).
Given the height of the bed and toilet, Gary Talbot, an ADA expert, wondered why a "reasonable accommodation," which he said is required of cruise ships by title III of the ADA (1990), was not made for Keskeny. Talbot, who's often used as an ADA expert in court cases (including those tried by Richard Bernstein), explained that toilet seats and beds can be raised by special pads and blocks, respectively. Celebrity declined to respond to our request for comment on the matter. It should be noted that Talbot is also on the Access Board, an independent Federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities. He spoke to Cruise Critic as a private citizen and ADA expert, and not on behalf of the Access Board.
According to both Celebrity Cruises and Bare Necessities, Keskeny never indicated -- beyond booking an accessible suite -- that he would require significant aid.
"He made his cruise booking directly with the charter company, and Celebrity Cruises was unaware of his additional needs until he was onboard the ship," said the line in a statement. Likewise, Tiemann said Keskeny had not made Bare Necessities aware of his special situation. Tiemann noted that it was her understanding that Keskeny's wife, Nancy, was supposed to be on the cruise, but became ill at the last minute. "Had I known ahead of time what was going on, I would have told him not to come alone."
Keskeny responded that he thought his disability would not be an issue.
Keskeny, who was traveling on his second cruise, said he's "99 percent independent," and he assumed that the cabin's butler would be able to help him "here and there" with, say, getting his wheelchair over inclines. "When I get into unfamiliar situations in traveling in hotels and places like that, I do need a little bit of assistance, which I've always been [able] to get from kind people," he said. On his first cruise -- a 2009 voyage on a Bare Necessities' Carnival Legend charter -- Keskeny said he managed for a week with a little help from an assigned roommate and the cabin steward, and no red flags were raised.
On the first sea day (Tuesday), after initially receiving bed help from his butler, Celebrity officials told Keskeny that he could not ask staff for help. Keskeny told us that "nowhere in the literature or during my research . . . showed there'd be an issue" with asking the butler for help.
Celebrity's policy, found in the FAQ section of its Web site, requires passengers with special needs to be self-sufficient and, if need be, to travel with a companion to provide assistance with eating, dressing, using the toilet or lifting, as cruise line personnel are "not required" perform these tasks. Additionally, the cruise line requires all passengers booking an accessible cabin to complete a special-needs-guest form. Based on responses from Celebrity and Tiemann, it is unclear if Keskeny filled out such a form. Tiemann noted, however, that Keskeny and his wife did fill out a standard passenger information form, and both were sent tickets.
Keskeny told us that he complied with the directive and relied on the help of "good Samaritan" passengers for the next day or so. (He explained that he would arrange times with his helpers morning and night and request help a few times during the day to use the bathroom.)
On Day 3 of the cruise, Keskeny fell off the toilet in his cabin. He was helped back into his wheelchair by a fellow passenger who, according to Keskeny, was already in the cabin to assist him.
Following his restroom slip, Celebrity officials told him he'd have to hire a private duty nurse. He declined and was debarked in Guadeloupe, the second port of call, on Thursday. (He was initially asked to debark on Wednesday in St. Barth's, a tender port, but given that travel options were somewhat minimal, Celebrity officials allowed him to stay onboard an extra night.) Keskeny's reason for turning down the nurse: "I felt like they were trying to sell me an armor-plated Cadillac limo, and all I needed was a Ford Fiesta. I wasn't about to spend that kind of money on a 24/7 assistant."
According to Bernstein, he and his client are entering binding arbitration -- because it's a contractual dispute, a lawsuit is precluded -- with Royal Caribbean Cruise, Ltd., Celebrity's parent company, and seeking a refund for the cruise and the $1,500 in travel expenses. Keskeny added that he will be canceling a Bare Necessities cruise scheduled for next year.
For Celebrity's part, Martinez said the line "will be happy to discuss this issue further with Mr. Keskeny and his attorney."
There may be a sequel to the story. Bernstein, who said his only initial goal was to get his client's money back via small-scale binding arbitration, told Cruise Critic that he's now so incensed at how Keskey was treated he's going to file a full-fledged lawsuit against Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. over fleetwide ADA compliance issues.
Share your opinion with 650,000 Cruise Critic members.
--by Dan Askin, News Editor