And the Verdict Is In (Kind Of)

In a landmark disability rights decision, the US Supreme Court ruled today on Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd. The 5-4 decision found that Title III of the ADA applies to foreign-flagged cruise ships that call on US ports.

Justice Kennedy penned the majority opinion which in part read, ?Large numbers of disabled individuals, many of whom have mobility impairments that make other kinds of vacation travel difficult, take advantage of these cruises, or would like to. To hold there is no Title III protection for disabled persons who seek to use the amenities of foreign cruise ships would be a harsh and unexpected interpretation of a statute designed to provide board protection for the disabled.?

The decision further stated, ?We therefore reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that the ADA is altogether inapplicable to foreign vessels.?

Of course, the decision stopped short of requiring across-the-board barrier removal on all ships. Justice Kennedy also noted that Title III does not require structural modifications that conflict with international legal obligations or pose any real threat to the safety of the crew or passengers.

He also added, ?It may well follow that Title III does not require any permanent and significant structural modifications that interfere with cruise ships internal affairs.?

Why? According to the majority opinion, barrier-removal could mandate a permanent and significant alteration of the physical features of the ship ? that is an element of basic ship design and construction. If so, it would likely interfere with the internal affairs of foreign ships.

Specifically cited in this instance were the petitioner?s allegations that most of the cabins on the respondent?s cruise ships (including the most attractive cabins in the most desirable locations) were not accessible and the all. Also cited were the petitioner?s allegations that coamings make many areas of the ships inaccessible.

Will these barriers have to be removed?

Time will tell as the case was remanded to Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for final disposition of the matter.

But at least we are moving forward with some type of decision, and in the long run hopefully it will give travelers a better understanding of what type of access to expect (or not expect) on cruise ships.

Of course, the Access Board?s final guidelines for passenger vessels will help in that respect too. After two public meetings this summer, it?s hoped that those too will be forthcoming.

Stay tuned.