Safety, Comfort and La Dolce Vita

by Andy Vladimir on July 1, 2005 - 2:06pm

QUEST Vol. 12, No. 4

Travel security

Many of us with disabilities who travel in this post-Sept. 11 world have stories of encounters with wrongheaded security officials that ended in fury or humiliation. The frequency of these encounters may be diminishing, however.

Early this year Sandra Cammaroto, program manager of the Transportation Security Administration’s Screening of Persons with Disabilities Program, produced a list of improvements to the checkpoint security screening process her program has facilitated.

A man in a wheelchair going through the cruise line's security check-in.
The Transportation Security Administration has made an effort to improve the security screening process for people with disabilities.

Some improvements are of interest to all of us:

  • Allowance and establishment of a visual inspection protocol for medications
  • Allowance of disability-related tools such as tools for wheelchairs, adaptive and assistive equipment
  • Improved sensitivity in procedures for the screening of prosthetic devices, braces and support appliances
    Allowance for all medications and associated supplies
  • Prohibition of removal of prosthetic devices, support braces or clothing during screening procedures
  • Procedures for screening augmentation devices, oxygen devices, ostomy supplies, orthopedic shoes and appliances

I’ve found screening procedures at airports and cruise terminals to have improved tremendously in recent months. I think they’re finally getting their act together. (see "Travelers and Consumers, Persons with Disabilities and Medical Conditions")

Hospital beds on cruise ships

I’ve discovered what for me is the ultimate amenity for cruisers — my own hospital bed in the cabin. I have trouble standing up to transfer. The seat on my scooter goes up and down, but when I sit on a bed, someone almost always has to lift me. At home I use a hospital bed, but when I travel it’s a hassle for my wife or companion.

At the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH) World Congress in January, I ran into Don Stillwell, who runs Care Vacations, which puts hospital beds, scooters, wheelchairs and supplemental oxygen aboard cruise ships.

Don told me he puts 400 beds a week aboard ships. I immediately ordered one for my next cruise aboard the Costa Atlantica to see how it turned out. I was bowled over. If you want one, too, call Care Vacations at (877) 478-7827.

Cruising Italian style

For years I’ve been hearing about the Costa Line, an Italian company cruising mostly in the Mediterranean, which offers Caribbean cruises from Fort Lauderdale in the winter. I regarded the ships as probably inaccessible, or at least less accessible than American lines, so I stayed away.

But last year I received a press release emphasizing their accessibility, so I decided to try them out.

I picked one of the newer ships, the 86,000-ton Costa Atlantica, built in 2000. I knew that, compared to other lines that sail the waters of the Caribbean, the Costa Lines would carry more European passengers, and I was looking forward to that experience.

The Costa Atlantica's Caffe Florian
The Costa Atlantica's Caff Florian

I knew I was in Italy as soon as I boarded the ship. The huge La Dolce Vita atrium looks just like a room from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Indeed, the whole ship has millions of dollars worth of original works of Italian art, including sculptures, paintings, murals, wall hangings, Murano glass and even handcrafted artisan furnishings.

Our cabin was nicely decorated, but a little too small to comfortably maneuver my scooter. I’d wanted one with a balcony but was told there were no accessible ones of that type. I also expected an ocean view, but lifeboats blocked it. The line does, however, have an accessible cabin with a balcony on its other new ships.

Those disappointments aside, the cabin had everything else I expected. My hospital bed was made up and in place. There was a fully accessible bathroom with a roll-in shower.

The public rooms are beautifully decorated, but my favorite was the Caffé Florian, a branch of the famous cafe on Saint Mark’s Square in Venice.

I could have sat here all day, sipping Bellini cocktails (fresh peach juice and champagne) and munching pastries that aren’t on my diet. I even liked the shops on this ship. They featured Italian styles and all kinds of Italian goodies.

Costa is a mass-market line, so you don’t get the kind of gourmet meals you expect on Celebrity or Holland America. But the ship had all the standards — lobster, beef Wellington, baked Alaska, and at least one Italian dish every night.

Entertainment was geared more to European than to American tastes. One evening the show in the main lounge was a piano concert. The best show was put on by the crew on Italian Night.

The last night of the cruise was Toga Night. Everyone received a white sheet with instructions on how to tie it into a variety of toga styles. We didn’t quite have a bacchanal, but it was definitely cruising Italian style and very different from its competitors.

We get letters

I thought I’d share a few of the questions I’ve received from Quest readers, and my answers.

Jim is planning a land/cruise vacation to Alaska. He has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and uses AFOs and a cane. He’s been using a pair of cross-country ski poles to navigate uneven surfaces, such as hiking trails, and is wondering whether to take those to Alaska or rent a scooter.

I recommend that Jim take both the poles and a scooter for maximum flexibility and getting around best. Because Alaska is U.S. territory many places adhere to ADA standards but there are a lot of uneven places. A scooter will be useful on the ship as well as on shore excursions.

Roland and his family want to take a tour of Germany. He has Becker muscular dystrophy, is a wheelchair user and is having difficulty finding a tour for travelers in Germany with disabilities.

I know from personal experience that Germany is a tough call. If you want to drive your own accessible van, you’ll have to rent one in Paris. The train system is said to be accessible, but I can’t vouch for that. In any case you have to get to the stations.

A couple of websites might be of interest: the Official Tourism Website of Germany's page on Disabled Travelers and the City of Hamburg site, where you can also find accessibility information.

Finally, I use Flying Wheels in Minneapolis, owned by Barbara Jacobson, an agency that specializes in travel for people with disabilities.

Several people have inquired about air travel with power wheelchairs or scooters, and this is what I tell them:

When you make a reservation, tell the airline you have a wheelchair and want a "gate check." You’ll ride up to the door of the plane, then check your chair. The crew helps transfer you to your seat with an aisle wheelchair, and stores your chair underneath. You must have dry cell batteries, or they won’t carry the chair. When the plane lands, they bring the chair back to the door.

It’s rare that a wheelchair gets damaged in flight. In my experience, the airlines have always been willing to pay for repairs. Also see Quest’s story "Leaving on a Jet Plane" (March-April 2003), which contains some helpful resources I also recommend.

Audrey has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy and uses both a scooter and a wheelchair. Her family, including her father with emphysema, is interested in taking its first cruise and seeks advice about wheelchair rentals and oxygen equipment, and a suggestion for an itinerary.

Cruise ships have wheelchairs but you can’t take them off the ship, and you’re much better having your own.

Oxygen is another problem. However, I suggest you contact Care Vacations for oxygen supplies rental.

For a first trip I suggest a seven-day Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean cruise lines, especially any ship with Voyager as part of the name.

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