What would you do if you required and booked a wheelchair accessible cruise but once onboard, found out it wasn’t? That is the terrible dilemma in which Russell Lash recently found himself.
This story is troubling on many levels. And it points to a problem in the cruise industry. Should a cruise that can’t deliver all passengers to all ports of call be permitted to call itself an accessible cruise? Lash’s cruise did just that, and he feels misled.
Can the Elliott Advocacy team help?
Did Celebrity’s Summit deliver an accessible cruise?
Lash had heard great things about Celebrity Cruises. Friends had told him of Celebrity’s commitment to making sure it provides an accessible cruise to all passengers.
Since Lash is confined to a wheelchair, this was very important to his travel planning. So when he and his husband decided to book a last-minute cruise, they turned to Celebrity.
They made their cruise plans with an agent at Vacations to Go. And they settled on an 11-day journey to Bermuda and New England. The agent reiterated that Celebrity’s Summit provided a wheelchair-accessible cruise. The couple was thrilled and, just days later, set off on their spur of the moment adventure.
The problems started soon after the couple boarded the ship and reached a crescendo on day five.
“We were so excited to board Celebrity’s Summit,” Lash recalled. “But I immediately realized that I would have problems on the ship. Although the Summit is advertised as accessible from “Bow to Stern,” it has structural flaws. These problems make it quite difficult to maneuver a standard wheelchair in the public areas.”
Lash explained that the joints that connect the public areas on the ship have a slightly raised metal lip. He said that the small wheels on the front of his standard wheelchair would catch on these barriers. This put him in danger of flipping forward in (and out of) his chair. He solved the problem by “jumping” the metal strips each time he encountered them. Unfortunately, in a few dimly lit hallways, he missed the strip and had several close calls.
This problem was only the beginning of Lash’s difficulties on the Summit. From unavailable wheelchair-accessible dining to no attendant available to work the accessible lift at the pool, the cruise was turning into a nightmare for Lash.
But then came day five.
An accessible cruise with no way for wheelchair users to get off the ship?
On the fifth day of the cruise, the Summit arrived at Newport, R.I. Lash explained:
A line of wheelchair users was at the gangplank that morning. We were all turned away. It was embarrassing and frustrating.
Then a guest relations representative made it clear that this was not really an accessible cruise. She said this port (and others) was not wheelchair accessible. It would be impossible for wheelchair and scooter users to leave the ship since the tender was not accessible.
Of the four ports of call on this cruise, two were inaccessible. Lash says that Celebrity had not conveyed this information to the passengers before that moment.
We tried several times over the next few days to get a meeting with the guest relations manager (Huda). We wanted some explanation. Why hadn’t we all been informed? We also wanted to address the horrible way their guest relations staff treated so many disabled people on board — right in front of dozens of other passengers.
Finally — a meeting with Celebrity’s guest relations manager on the Summit
Lash said that when Huda finally accepted a meeting with the outraged passengers, she apologized for the situation. She agreed that the Summit is not currently offering a fully accessible cruise. Celebrity Cruises has scheduled the Summit for a complete overhaul in 2019. At that time, she told them, the vessel will be entirely accessible.
But Huda ultimately blamed the confusion on the passengers’ various travel agents. Huda told the angry guests that Celebrity lists the inaccessible ports of call on its website. And she suggested that each guest contact their own travel agent for an explanation.
Lash says that Huda’s lack of empathy for her guests’ situation was really astounding. She offered no resolution or explanation. And she also was unable to point out the information on Celebrity’s website concerning the ports of call for this cruise being inaccessible.
“She told us, ‘I can’t find it right now, but I know it’s there,'” Lash told me. “Then she showed us the door, indicating we should leave.”
And that was the end of Celebrity’s onboard response to the pleas for help from these bewildered guests.
Will Vacations to Go offer an explanation for this disastrous cruise?
When Lash reached out to the Elliott Advocacy team to ask for help, he had been following Huda’s advice. For several months since the couple had returned from the disastrous cruise, Lash had been searching for answers from Vacations to Go.
Although his travel agent was sympathetic, he placed the blame back on Celebrity. The agent told Lash that he was trying to get an explanation from Celebrity, but that no one would respond to his emails. He didn’t know what went wrong.
Lash sent me 55 pages of back-and-forth communication with Vacations to Go. His correspondence was always polite and, for the most part, Lash followed all the problem-solving advice that can be found in this article by Christopher Elliott.
Some self-advocacy problems
However, there were two significant problems that I could see were preventing Lash from reaching any resolution. First, Lash loves to write long, descriptive emails. We don’t recommend writing these types of novel-length explanations in your advocacy efforts. It’s vital that the critical parts of your problem jump off the page at the reader. You must keep in mind that not everyone is going to be captivated by your rendition of your problem. So you need to get right to the important stuff.
But I did read all of Lash’s paper trail.
In his complaints, Lash detailed a multitude of problems with the Summit that made the cruise ship truly inaccessible for him. Each one of these issues was a serious and valid problem. But there were so many that I predicted that no one else would read the long list.
A complaint such as Lash’s should be presented in a bullet point fashion. Bullet point notes help the reader quickly scan the problems.
I noted that Lash had buried critical parts of his experience inside the giant narrative.
Things most of us take for granted — like being able to open a bathroom door on your own
Many of the things that Lash encountered are things that most of us take for granted. If it’s true that Celebrity will soon refurbish the Summit, then most of what Lash experienced should be addressed in the overhaul.
For instance, Lash said that the doors on all of the bathrooms in the public areas were much too heavy to open on his own. Lash says this problem forced him to ask strangers for assistance to open the doors. This was true even on restrooms with the “handicapped” placard.
The surprise discovery that wheelchair users couldn’t leave the ship in half of the ports was only part of the problem with this 11-day cruise.
But the second problem with Lash’s attempts to get some explanation after he returned home was that he never tried to contact Celebrity directly. He relied on his travel agent to mediate his case. And based on the paper trail, I suspected that this agent never contacted Celebrity. Lash’s experience was awful. So if Lash’s agent had really contacted Celebrity, it was puzzling why no one had responded.
Lash shared my assessment of the situation:
I guess I just didn’t want to believe in my heart that yet another person in this situation was taking advantage of us and just assuming I wasn’t smart enough to continue to press the issue with someone. For some reason, people hear the word “disabled” and they automatically think that means some sort of brain development issues as well (not that I perhaps graduated from college Summa Cum Laude and worked as a producer in top-rated network television programming before I got sick).
It’s important to remember that if you find you’re hitting a wall in your self-advocacy attempts, it might be time to abandon that path and redirect your focus. And although Lash initially wanted me to contact Vacations to Go, I believed that Celebrity Cruises should be our target.
Celebrity Cruises: An accessible cruise from “bow to stern”
The Celebrity Cruises’ website advertises “An unrivaled cruise vacation for Each and Every Guest” This appears on Celebrity’s webpage under the title “Accessible cruise.” And it would appear from this information that Celebrity prides itself in making its cruises accessible.
So I wondered what went wrong here.
I searched Celebrity’s website for the information that the guest relations manager said could be found about the inaccessible ports. And although I found Celebrity’s page with inaccessible ports highlighted, the two cities on Lash’s’ cruise (Newport and Bar Harbor) were not listed.
Huda was incorrect.
There was no way that these cruisers could have used this information to predict that the Summit’s itinerary included nonaccessible ports of call.
Is the Summit an accessible ship?
And then I checked out the information specifically offered about the Summit. Celebrity Cruises advertises this ship as a completely accessible cruise – bow to stern.
All information about the Summit and this itinerary would give guests every impression that they were boarding a wheelchair accessible cruise.
So I reached out to our executive contact at Celebrity to see if I could find out what happened.
I made sure that my inquiry was concise and hit the major problems that Lash encountered.
As I suspected Celebrity wanted to make this right. Within 24-hours of my email to Celebrity, Lash finally got the response that he was hoping for from Celebrity.
Celebrity Cruises responds
It is still unclear why Celebrity did not warn the passengers in advance about the inaccessible ports on this cruise. But Lash received a personal apology from the executive level of Celebrity for the difficulties that he experienced during his voyage. And Celebrity refunded a portion of the cruise in cash, not a future cruise credit. And anyone who knows anything about cruise lines knows that cash refunds are very difficult to extract. So this is quite a victory for Lash.
Lash is currently busy planning a replacement cruise. And this time he’s doing extensive research before he makes his plans — since all accessible cruises are not the same.
And this Thanksgiving, Lash says he is grateful that someone at Celebrity finally heard his pleas. The refund was a nice surprise, but the apology and validation were much more important to him. And the experience has set Lash down a new path. He is now an advocate for wheelchair users everywhere and has started his own non-profit organization with a focus on increasing accessibility.
My new goal in life is to help other disabled people escape their prison cells we call home (our wheelchairs) and join being a part of the human experience with everyone else. This whole experience with what happened on the Summit has really caused me to to face how inaccessible so many aspects of the travel industry are.
How can you find an accessible cruise that meets all your needs?
Since accessible cruises are not one-size-fits-all, it’s important to make sure that your travel agent and cruise line are familiar with your needs. There are a few things that you can do to lessen the chance of finding yourself in the same position Lash found himself.
1) Use a travel professional who specializes in accessible travel. A website such as Travel Leaders has a search option to filter only agents who have a stated experience in planning accessible travel. You may need to interview a few agents and ask for references before you settle on one. Your unique needs require a unique agent who is interested in learning about you and helping you plan a successful vacation.
2) Make sure that your cruise line is expecting you (and your needs). In Lash’s case, his cruise itinerary made no mention of his wheelchair use. This omission may have contributed to some of the onboard problems he encountered. For example, on several occasions, his dinner reservations placed him in the center of the dining room. This location made it quite difficult to maneuver his standard wheelchair to the table among the crowd.
Most cruise lines, Celebrity included, have a pre-arrival guests special needs form. This form helps the guest relations team to determine and prepare for your needs before you arrive on board. It also gives an opportunity for the cruise line to let you know if it can’t accommodate a specific need.
3) Consider renting specialized mobility devices for your cruise. Lash noticed that many of his fellow disabled passengers were using scooters. Those scooter-users were maneuvering about the ship much more easily. In fact, those guests didn’t seem to be “tripping” over the metal bars on the floor. On his next cruise, Lash plans to rent a scooter for his adventure.
A company such as Scootaround will deliver a wide range of mobility devices directly to your ship. The company currently services all major cruise lines and can be an excellent resource for passengers hoping to make sure their next cruise is fully accessible.