Cruising in a Sea of Frustration

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I’m sitting on a teeny-tiny shower seat on a cruise ship. More precisely, since there’s a grab bar behind the seat, I’m sitting on the front edge of a teeny-tiny shower seat. The seat is vinyl and the soap is making it very slippery. I only have one foot to balance myself. To top it off, the ship is rocking — good for putting you to sleep, but not so good for trying to maintain your balance while showering on a too-small, slippery seat.

“Do you have a larger shower seat hidden away somewhere?” I asked the cabin steward when I saw him next.

His answer? “No.”

Welcome to another round of “inaccessible accessible places.”

My love of cruising began 10 or 11 years ago, when I was looking for a way to take my grandchildren places without having to chase after them all day. The solution? A Disney cruise. It worked all too well: They were so busy with the cruise line’s children’s activities that their attitude was along the lines of “Nana who?”

I discovered with that and subsequent cruises that my stress melts away the minute I board. Cruise lines feed you, entertain you, take you places, and rock you to sleep. You can keep busy or do nothing at all. They can be very mind-healing, too. I took a short Disney cruise with a friend and her grandson just three months after having a below-the-knee amputation in November 2010.

By the end of this last one, however — a two-week cruise on Holland America that included going through the Panama Canal — I was questioning my ability to go on another cruise. On a cruise line, that is, with fewer than 2,000 or so children on board.

For the first time in my eight-cruise history, I kept running into frustrating situations.

It began with my room. There was a post in front of the door and the bathroom door. Beyond the post, there was a table between the sofa and the beds. I couldn’t go any further into the room until the table was moved out of the way. One of the beds was blocking the door to the verandah. There also was no room for me to turn around. Once the cabin steward reconfigured the beds, I found that — horrors! — I couldn’t get onto my verandah. The sill was too high for my scooter to clear. Our cabin steward, bless him, tried to jury rig a solution, but was unsuccessful. A zero-entry sill or a portable threshold ramp would have helped.

I like a verandah. I rise early and like to have my coffee or tea outdoors. At home, I either have it on the front porch or the deck in back. On a ship, I can call room service for coffee and have it on the verandah. Not having access to my verandah meant I had to get dressed and go up on deck to have my coffee. Later in the day, I like to go out and read or just watch the world go by. It’s a big deal to me. The only time I did not have a verandah was when I took the children to Alaska and had to book an inside room in order to be able to afford the trip.

The next frustration came with the requisite muster call. That’s when you go to your lifeboat station for a head count and instructions on how to use your life vest. I couldn’t get onto the deck: There was a drop that was just enough to bring my scooter to a screeching halt before it was halfway through the door. Many people don’t like muster call, but I do. If nothing else, it embeds my lifeboat station in my brain. In case of emergency, I know exactly where to go.

There were small frustrations: The bath towels were placed on the top shelf above the toilet. That is, until I showed the cabin steward that I could not reach them. After that, he placed a couple of bath towels on a portable SMALL shower seat under the sink. I told him about leaving the showerhead in the down position on the slider, but my traveling buddy also knew that. (When you can’t stand up, you can’t reach the handheld showerhead if it’s in the up position on the slider.)

There was a dire lack of armless chairs. Armless chairs are easier to transfer to and from and, for large people, they’re more comfortable. There were none on the deck and none in the restaurant I ate most of my meals in. After I asked, one was brought from the main dining room and hidden for me to use during meals inside. When I chose to eat on the deck, I did so from my scooter. Scooters are for transportation: Scooters are not for comfort.

The sink in my room was too high for me to get my face over it. Closet doors that open out make it difficult for me to reach things in the closet, but every cruise ship I’ve been on has had that. It would be nice to have accordion doors or doors that slide into the sides of the closet in the accessible rooms.

But the most frustrating of all was my attempt to get a view of the locks in the Panama Canal from the front of the ship. My room was at the front of the ship, but there was a partition on the verandah that couldn’t be removed. (Not that I could get onto the verandah). There was a little deck outside my door — with a short, but insurmountable, wall between me and the deck. You could go to the front of the ship on deck 4, but there were steps or maybe just one step. Whatever. It didn’t matter: Even one step was too many.

So I went to the front desk, where a trainee asked if I could get onto the Lido Deck. Yes, I could. Then you can watch from the back of the ship, she said.

And I could. I saw the very last locks work.

Panama Canal Locks

When you run into situations that could be made better, be sure to ask. Some — like the armless chair — could be remedied. Others, like the larger shower seat and threshold problems, could not. Either way, if you don’t ask, the company won’t be aware that there is a problem. Maybe just one person calling attention to the problem will be enough. Maybe it will take more than one person asking.

Write the company. I did and got a very nice response from Holland America’s manager of access and compliance which said, in part, “the best way for us to understand what is working well on the ships and which areas may need enhancing is to hear from our valued guests who are living the product…so your thoughts as a guest on how we are doing, particularly in the area of providing accessibility, are of great value to us.”

And, for those of you who wonder if companies have real special-needs people testing their products, it seems that some do.

“We have worked closely with the US Access Board and advocacy groups on accessibility guidelines and on various advisory committees for structural elements of the ships,” the manager wrote.”Additionally, it was my privilege to work with a number of individuals with many different types of disabilities that have sailed with our company and other lines as I developed a sensitivity training program we have created called People First: Understanding Disabilities. We spent several days interviewing and shooting videos on our ships to include personal stories, feelings, and experiences from these guests to reiterate the teaching provided in these courses.”

It’s also recently added diagrams of every one of its accessible rooms for potential passengers to check out, as well as a chart of accessible features for each ship in its fleet. The chart includes items such as the availability of lifts for pools and hot tubs. (I couldn’t go into a pool or hot tub on the ship, either.)

So maybe I’ll go on another cruise. I would like to head to Alaska again for a cruise-tour, which adds trains and buses into the mix. You can be sure I’ll be studying those diagrams and charts — as well as asking a lot of questions.

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