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Cruising with a wheelchair: top tips to stay safe and have fun

Cruising with a wheelchair? What’s it really like? My husband and I love a cruise, but for a while we thought our cruising days were over. He is now 87 and has awful problems with balance.  He cannot walk long distances and cannot stand for long on his replacement knees. So although he is not usually confined to a wheelchair, when we discovered cruises which were ‘disabled-accessible’ and could accommodate wheelchair users we were thrilled.

Sadly some cruises are not quite as wheelchair friendly as they make out. Here are some of the problems we encountered on a recent cruise.

Embarkation and Disembarkation
This was a total disaster for disabled passengers. About 5 days before departure, we received a letter from the cruise operator to say that passengers should not arrive before the boarding time mentioned on the ticket. Have you ever tried changing travel arrangements involving a disabled person at 5 days notice? As we had cruised before, we decided to follow the same routine as before to avoid the crush when the coaches arrived. We therefore arrived at Ocean Terminal in Southampton two hours before we were due and were herded into a small area for passengers needing boarding assistance, as far away from the lavatories as possible. Harassed staff with clipboards wandered around taking details. Quite why they needed more information was not clear: we had already registered for boarding assistance and supplied everything requested.

Two hours later, when we eventually made our way onto the ship, we learnt that there had been twice as many people requiring assistance as had registered. But those who had registered were not given priority.

Ahead of disembarkation the directions for those registered as needing assistance were not clear, and when it came to it there was bedlam. We had a taxi waiting for us at 9.00. Reception had been advised of this. At about 10.30 we decided we could wait no longer and so with me pushing the wheelchair, my husband and I disembarked. There were very few porters, so this meant we had to cope with the wheelchair and the luggage. My husband damaged his shoulders using the hand wheels on his wheelchair to leave the terminal as I could not handle both the wheelchair and luggage trolley.

Wheelchair use on board
Neither of us realised how difficult it is to push a wheelchair on carpet – and the interiors of ships are mostly carpeted. This difficulty is compounded with a rolling and pitching ship as one moment you are pushing upwards and the next you have to apply the brakes.

What the cruise operator failed to tell us was that there is company called Mobility at Sea, based in Hampshire, which rents out electric wheelchairs and scooters and delivers them to ships. They just need a reasonable amount of notice, to ensure that the correct wheelchair/scooter is available.

Disabled access to excursions
Disabled passengers need to check ahead how tours and excursions are run and whether they can accommodate wheelchairs and scooters. On our last cruise to the Caribbean, we discovered, too late, that most of the tours were run on mini-buses which are not suitable for taking wheelchairs and scooters, even collapsible ones. And although the ship’s crews are very helpful in getting wheelchairs and scooters on and off the ship, some of the port facilities are such that one is better staying on board. Again it would help if the cruise operator could inform disabled passengers about these details.

The bottom line is that too many cruise operators still don’t really take disabled passengers into account, even on cruises which are supposedly disabled-accessible. The cost of a cruise is huge and with a growing number of older people still wanting to travel despite disabilities The cruise companies should be doing a much better job at looking after them, before AND during the holiday.