The Real Scoop on the “New” DOT Cruise Ship Access Regulations

I’ve been getting a lot of questions this week about the “new” Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations for cruise ships. This flurry of inquiries was preceded by a recent DOT press release touting the new regulations as something to celebrate on this upcoming 20th anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Frankly though, people are a bit confused.

Readers are asking me questions like, “Does this mean cruise ships will now have to provide accessible shore excursions?” and “Will it require a specific number of accessible rooms on each ship?” and “Does this mean that expedition style cruises will finally be accessible?”

Sadly, I have to answer no on all accounts. Despite the fanfare, its all pretty routine. In short, this new regulation just codifies case law. And although it may make it easier to enforce ADA discrimination complaints on cruise ships, we are still a long way from having any real access regulations on the books.

To understand it all, you need to have a little history on the subject.

It all goes back to June 6, 2005, when the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line, and declared that the ADA applies to foreign-flagged cruise ships that call on US ports. This ruling meant two things. First, it’s illegal to discriminate against disabled passengers by denying them boarding, forcing them to travel with an attendant or even charging them more. Second, it means that cruise ships that call on US ports will eventually be held to some very specific access standards. Unfortunately those standards have yet to be developed, even though the US Access Board has been working on this project for the past five years. So basically we’re left with case law preventing discrimination.

And the new DOT regulation codifies that case law.

Specifically it prohibits cruise lines that call on US ports from:

  • Charging disabled passengers extra for disability related services
  • Requiring disabled passengers to travel with an attendant
  • Denying passage strictly because of a disability

It also requires the cruise lines to provide access information and to have a knowledgeable person on staff to resolve access related problems, two things they already do.

So where do we stand on the regulations that will make the real difference — the ADAAG that the Access Board is developing? Well according to my last update, they are hopelessly stalled as they are trying to sort out some issues affecting deaf and hard-of-hearing passengers. So until these regulations are released there are no access standards for cruise lines. Nada. Zip. Zero.

Although most cruise lines have done a great job in voluntarily making their ships accessible, it’s far from a requirement. And we do need those requirements and some standardization, so folks know what to expect.

All I can say is stay tuned. Perhaps the Access Board will also have a big announcement soon. Maybe even for the 20th anniversary of the ADA — July 26, 2010. We can only hope.