One port stop forced Peters to take a 1.5-mile, two-hour wheelchair trek.
One port stop forced Peters to take a 1.5-mile, two-hour wheelchair trek.
Deron Neblett

Access Denied

Rodger Peters suffers from a hereditary disease that has left him functionally quadriplegic. If both parents carry the gene, it is passed on to half their offspring, a roulette game his mother and father -- a career navy man -- have played and lost three times: Both of his younger brothers died from the affliction. At 44, Peters already has surpassed his life expectancy by more than a decade. He shares a two-bedroom apartment with his personal care attendant, Carlos Ramirez, and holds jobs as an epidemiologist and Internet technician to afford a vacation once a year.

"I've been around ships all my life," Peters says, fondly recalling the stories his father would tell of his sea voyages. A "Texaribbean" cruise on Norwegian Cruise Lines was an obvious choice to "see some of what my father saw." But because of his condition, Peters knew he needed to do some research.

A helpful travel agent assured him The Norwegian Star was accessible, and provided answers as detailed as the eight inches from floor to mattress needed to accommodate his Hoyer Lift (a device that helps him move from chair to bed). He was told some excursions such as beaches and hang-gliding might be off limits, but otherwise transportation could take him on the land tours. Specifically, Peters asked about the glass-bottomed boat, and the travel agent said that would not be a problem.

With those assurances, Peters gladly shelled out more than $2,000 for tickets for Ramirez and himself in 1998. But like hundreds of other disabled passengers, Peters found the situation on board very different from what the travel agency and brochures described. Peters had to take his wheelchair apart just to fit on the elevator to get to other floors, and some decks he couldn't reach at all. The only accessible restroom available to him was in his room, one of four cabins reserved for disabled passengers out of a total of 800. All four were interior rooms without windows.

That lack of public facilities would become a nightmare for Julia Hollenbeck. She's president of the Wheel-Me-On handicapped advocacy group and will be an Olympic 2002 Relay Torchbearer. Hollenbeck had been on many ships before, and like Peters she knew what questions to ask before she booked passage on The Norwegian Sea in 1998. But the public restrooms she was promised didn't exist. Asked if that caused problems, Hollenbeck says, "It certainly did, baby, and we won't talk about it." Lacking the same sensations as able-bodied people, Hollenbeck gets only 20 to 30 minutes' warning before it's an emergency. If it takes her, as she estimates, as much as 45 minutes to get to the restroom in her cabin, it's easy to guess what happened.

For hundreds of disabled passengers who have sailed on Norwegian Cruise Lines, the story was the same: The ship couldn't dock in Cancun, so the only way ashore was by tender, a boat the wheelchairs couldn't reach. In Roatán the gangplank was narrow and had steps that were impossible to traverse. In port the ship became a veritable ghost town, with little more to do than visit the bar and watch the same Norwegian Cruise Line commercial recycle on TV.

Peters says he basically spent his seven-day vacation sipping piña coladas and watching women by the pool. "I saw The Patriot three times," he says, adding, "I was relaxed, but not happy." In Cozumel, the only port where he actually touched land, no buses or vans had lifts. So the mile and a half to San Miguel turned into a two-hour trek via wheelchair.

Most disturbing for him is that the power to the elevators is cut off in emergencies, leaving stairs as the only means of escape. Even if he made it to the correct floor, an eight-inch barrier blocked his way to the boats. During one lifeboat drill Peters sat wearing his life jacket as passengers filed out. Finally a concerned Peters asked a nearby crew member what would happen if the boat were actually sinking. "Well, we're not sure," she said. "We don't really have a plan, but I assume we would probably have some guys come and carry you out to a lifeboat."

Ramirez admits he could carry Peters up several flights of stairs if he had to, but because of Peters's condition that could cause serious injuries or even kill him, since he can't have weight on his chest. Peters puts it more bluntly. "If that boat sinks, you're going down with it and the captain, because it's only going to be you and him."

Last year Hollenbeck and Peters sued NCL for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and misrepresenting their facilities. The Justice Department filed a similar case in January 2000, after a blind couple were not allowed to board for their honeymoon sail until they signed a release, obtained a note from their doctor and found a person with eyesight to join them in their quarters. NCL settled that case for $65,000 without admitting liability. At the time, the Christian Science Monitor quoted Scott LaBarre, the president of the National Association of Blind Lawyers, as saying that the situation was "much simpler than a wheelchair-access case where the person could be barred by the design of the ship."

Vinson & Elkins, the law firm representing NCL, suggests in a motion to dismiss that prohibitive costs for refitting will be part of the defense. But it appears the main thrust of its argument won't be that the ships are accessible; rather, that they don't have to be. The cruise company is headquartered in Miami, and more than 90 percent of NCL passengers come from or sail out of U.S. ports, but lawyers contend that since NCL is incorporated in the Bahamas, it is not subject to American laws.

That certainly hasn't kept NCL from telling disabled passengers its ships are accessible or taking their money. Norwegian Cruise Lines pulled up anchor in Houston earlier this year in search of better profits in Miami, but it will be left to a Houston federal court on November 19 to decide whether the suit will gain class-action status.

Although travel agencies also have been named as defendants, it is unclear whether they did anything beyond passing along the information they were given. Even if NCL isn't required to abide by the ADA, it seems hard to justify openly soliciting disabled passengers as if it were. As Peters points out, airlines remove the disabled last from planes -- but at least they're up front about it. "Don't promise me something and then break those promises," Peters says. "That's not ethical."


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