Travel: Traversing The High Seas with a Wheelchair

By Joel Dembe

To beat the blistering, cold Canadian winter, and to take a break from tennis, I decided to go on a much-needed cruise vacation to the Western Caribbean. As a first-time cruiser, I had no idea what the experience would be like—particularly as a wheelchair user. On a more personal level, it would
be my first vacation with my girlfriend. In my opinion, there are few things more tedious and frustrating than planning a trip when you have a disability. In this case, it was made more challenging by the fact that I wanted my girlfriend to enjoy the experience as much as possible, without sacrificing anything because of my mobility issues. So, why did we choose a cruise in the first place, when there are so many different travel options? If you’re looking for unlimited food and…ahem…drink, lots of preplanned onboard activities, amenities, great weather, a party atmosphere and a multitude of excursions in a variety of ports, then a cruise is definitely for you. Doing some research prior to booking, I discovered that Norwegian Cruise Lines is pretty good in terms of accessibility on all of its ships. And while not perfect, the trip has given me a good baseline for my accessibility expectations for future cruises.

We embarked on a seven-day cruise on the Norwegian Pearl, departing from Miami, Florida. I made the  stupid mistake of deciding to fly out of Buffalo during a snowstorm. Despite some members of my family
pleading for me to re-book my flight out of Toronto, I was a man on a mission, and decided it would be easier to risk my life (and my girlfriend’s) driving in brutal weather than to admit to everyone I had made
a mistake. We barely made our connecting flight out of Atlanta (another mistake—we should have gone direct), but not before an altercation with security for breaking the unwritten speed limit within the terminal.
Despite these unforeseen events, we were able to start our cruise quickly and with ease. I was really impressed with how simple and fast it was to board the ship. If you have any kind of mobility issue, you won’t have to wait in the massive check-in and registration lines. The lack of any wait times made me think how lucky I was to have a disability! After a short 15 minutes, we were settling in on the ship.

Our interior cabin was pretty small, but miraculously we were able to fit with some space for my wheelchair to manoeuvre! I was able to access the closet and storage compartments without assistance, and my chair could stay beside the bed. The bathroom was equipped with a roll-in shower and chair, making it ideal. Even so, I occasionally felt the bite of strong cabin fever, which was helped by staying out of the room as much as possible.

The honest truth is that I ate way, way too much. I know this is a typical part of the cruising experience,
but by the end of the trip I felt that I had made a bloated mess out of myself. I totally gave in to the horde of seafood options. Everything and anything was available at all hours of the day. Fantastic! We really enjoyed watching performances by The Second City, and even some of the second-tier acts truly had some musical talent. In advance of my trip, I knew that the onshore excursions could provide accessibility problems. As great as Norwegian was in accommodating my disability on the boat, the excursion staff lacked the necessary knowledge about accessibility off the boat. How frustrating!

Our first excursion involved us heading to Norwegian’s own private island, Great Stirrup Cay. While the
weather definitely could have been better, I was impressed that beach wheelchairs were readily available. These allowed me to get onto the sandy areas with help manoeuvring. I found this only slightly humiliating, as I’m not used to being pushed around! The other issue for this excursion was the tethering. Tethering involves taking a smaller boat from the ship to the destination. Unfortunately, most tethers involve stairs, so unless you can walk yourself or get help, you might be stuck. Luckily, I was able to manage, although I was careful because of the rough seas.

Speaking of the seas, I did experience some seasickness thanks to my tethering experience, which led to me almost throwing up several times. It’s best to research ahead of time before you book your cruise to see which destinations require tethering, because this can make or break your vacation! Both our best and worst excursions came during our day on Grand Cayman. We booked a tiki-beach getaway and were able to swim and snorkel in the ocean. Unfortunately, the bus to the beach was not wheelchair
accessible, and the beach—for all its beauty—was also not ideal because there were no beach wheelchairs
available. I was able to get onto the beach with help, but it wasn’t easy. Having said this, my girlfriend and I had a great time, and I enjoyed the day even more by drinking an undisclosed number of rum punches. Needless to say, by the end of the excursion I had passed out in my wheelchair and somehow made it back to the boat before we departed on the seas.

Our final destination was Cozumel, Mexico. We visited the city and went to another beach, but nothing
seemed that remarkable to me—just lots of tourist traps. The city itself is moderately accessible, with most buildings having ramps or escalators. Also ideal is the fact that you do not have to tether, making it really simple to get on and off the ship.

So, should you go on a cruise if you have a disability? It will completely depend on your tastes. If you enjoy soaking up the sun, drinking alcohol, dancing the night away and eating to your heart’s desire, a cruise is a perfect way to relax on your vacation. If you are hoping that the cruise destinations will completely cater to your specific needs then you should probably look elsewhere.

It is important to do as much research as possible prior to booking your cruise to ensure you don’t run into any problems. Also, be sure to give the cruise operator a call a few weeks before embarking to let them know about your specific needs.

Here’s hoping your cruise will be full of great memories. Bon voyage!

Joel Dembe is a Canadian National Wheelchair Tennis Champion, Paralympian, and a Canadian Abilities Foundation board member.

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