What Does the Carnival ADA Settlement Really Mean?

The media is all a buzz about the recent Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) settlement agreement between the Department of Justice and Carnival Corporation. Basically it requires Carnival to make access improvements on 62 Carnival, Holland America and Princess ships, pay a modest fine to the government and reparations to the damaged parties, and appoint compliance officers to oversee access on the ships. And of course, as in most settlement agreements, Carnival admits no wrongdoing or violation of the ADA.

But how can there be a settlement agreement when we don’t even have access regulations for cruise ships on the books yet?

As you may recall on June 6, 2005 the US Supreme Court decided in favor of the plaintiffs in Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line, and ruled that the ADA applies to foreign-flagged cruise ships that call on US ports. The catch is, even though we have case law requiring access, we still don’t have any specific rules and regulations (known as the Passenger Vessel Accessibility Guidelines ).

In order to close that loophole, the Department of Transportation (DOT) subsequently produced their own guidelines on procedural issues regarding access; a document which clearly states discrimination against people with disabilities is forbidden.

Discrimination is the key word here, as the settlement was the direct result of numerous complaints from individuals with disabilities who alleged that the Carnival discriminated against them on the basis of disability.

How did they discriminate?

According to the settlement agreement, the cruise line allegedly failed to properly provide and reserve accessible cabins to individuals with mobility disabilities, and denied individuals with disabilities the opportunities to participate in the programs and services provided by the cruise lines.

So instead of going to court — and perhaps be found guilty of violating the ADA — Carnival settled.

And although Carnival is required to make sure the ships in question have a minimum number of “accessible” cabins, their definition of “accessible” lets them off the hook a bit.

Under the settlement, there are three types of accessible cabins.

Ambulatory Accessible Cabin (AAC)

An accessible cabin with a tub/shower combination

Fully Accessible Cabin (FAC)
An accessible cabin with a roll-in shower

Fully Accessible Single Side Approach (FAC-SSA)
An accessible cabin with a roll-in shower that only has wheelchair access on one side of the bed.

It should be noted that the proposed Passenger Vessel Accessibility Guidelines do not include the FAC-SSA category. So under this settlement agreement Carnival gets by with a lower standard of access than will be required when the official regulations are released.

So what’s the big deal? Who really cares what categories Carnival uses if they make their ships accessible? After all if an accessible cabin has a roll-in shower does it really matter if there is only wheelchair access on one side of the bed? Well, it matters if the cabin is used by two wheelchair-users. But space is at a premium on cruise ships, so that’s why the Carnival wants the FAC-SSA category. They don’t want to allot the extra cabin space for a FAC, because that means they will get fewer cabins on the ship, and fewer cabins means less revenue.

Still the settlement is a good thing, as it regulates access on some existing ships. And in my book, that’s progress!

So what does the Carnival settlement really mean? Well in my hopeful mind, it means the imminent release of the Passenger Vessel Accessibility Guidelines. I’m thinking that Carnival wanted to go with a sure thing, so they settled quickly, before  stricter regulations are on the books.

Of course my crystal ball is a bit murky on this one, but like I said, I’m hopeful. In any case, the public comment period on the proposed guidelines ended on January 24, 2014, and the Access Board has had ample opportunity to review them.

So imminent release is indeed a definite possibility.