'More than I hoped for': This is what it's like cruising with a disability right now

·4 min read

Turn to any travel channel and you'll be submersed in the excitement that cruising is back.

As travel restrictions eased this year and demand continues to increase, the cruise industry is on the upswing – thanks, in part, to first-time cruisers. But is it leaving disabled travelers behind?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 26% of Americans have some form of disability. I have traveled with an invisible disability – sustained from a traumatic brain injury – for almost a decade, which makes it harder to understand what people are saying. I process speech and communicate slower, oftentimes leaving me confused and tired when traveling.

After recently setting sail on Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas and Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas, the safety and accessibility measures were more than I hoped for. Both ships required a negative COVID-19 test from all passengers before boarding, and there were wheelchairs escorts available at the cruising terminal to help passengers to their accessible rooms.

Not to mention, I found the crew to be more attentive and patient during COVID-19, which is especially important for people with invisible disabilities as crew members checked in with me daily to see how they could assist.

Ciara Turner-Ewert on Royal Caribbean’s Wander of the Seas.
Ciara Turner-Ewert on Royal Caribbean’s Wander of the Seas.

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Chelsea Bear, a disabled lifestyle influencer who has cerebral palsy and often travels with a mobility scooter, told USA TODAY that "with staff constantly cleaning and sanitizing, plus so many touch-free options throughout the ship and systems in place to create space between guests, I felt much safer than a cruise prior to the pandemic."

Cruise lines, and across the broader travel industry, have been slowly making an effort to be more inclusive.

"Sometimes I would teach the staff or officers on the ships about deaf awareness that not all of the deaf passengers are the same," said Michael Pimentel, chief executive officer at Heart Cruises and a cruise group leader.  Pimentel is deaf.

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Chelsea Bear, a Tampa, Florida native, has cerebral palsy and often travels with her mobility scooter. Before experiencing a new city or state, she verifies has accessible and safe the area is for people with disabilities.
Chelsea Bear, a Tampa, Florida native, has cerebral palsy and often travels with her mobility scooter. Before experiencing a new city or state, she verifies has accessible and safe the area is for people with disabilities.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest difference, Bear noted, was the increased amount of touch-free options, which made it easier to enter areas with a mobility scooter while operating it.

"As someone with a physical disability that uses a mobility scooter, I personally think cruises are the most accessible way to travel," Bear said.

We all know the next most important thing on a cruise is, well, the food. We come to devour and indulge in all the delicious cuisine en route. This hasn't changed.  However, self-service buffets are now "crew-service buffets," meaning that in order to maintain safety, food and dishes may be given to you by a masked crew member.

Ciara Turner-Ewert on Royal Caribbean’s Wander of the Seas.
Ciara Turner-Ewert on Royal Caribbean’s Wander of the Seas.

Although masks may be required for safety protocols, sometimes they create new barriers for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Masks make it "much harder for me not to be able to lip-read," Pimentel pointed out.

Pimentel, who has been cruising for more than 28 years, said he now has to "write everything on notepads, (which is) more time-consuming."

For some disabled travelers, the experience has been largely free of anxiety.

"Throughout my cruise, I wasn't having to worry about accessibility, or being put into situations that didn't quite work with my disability," said content creator Conner Lundius,  who has a spinal cord injury and is an L2 paraplegic.

But there's still a room for improvement when it comes to some excursions.

During a boating excursion to an island, Lundius experienced some difficulty getting onto the boat. Lundius weighed in, "this was expected – ADA law doesn't exist everywhere in the world." But, "the staff running the excursion (in Nassau) didn't hesitate to lift me up and carry me onto the boat, something I’m very comfortable with if the situation calls for it," Lundius said.

The best advice for cruising is to do your due diligence, request accessible accommodations in advance, thoroughly research excursions, and have fun.

Ciara Turner-Ewert is a wellness travel blogger based in Los Angeles. You can follow Ciara on her blog WellnessTravelDiaries.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruising with a disability has gotten better, depending on your needs

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