By Mike Stevens
Sue Slater could feel waves of cold radiate from the glacier as her cruise ship slipped past the towering wall of ice in Alaska’s Disenchantment Bay. Suddenly, she heard a car-sized chunk of ice tear away from the 40-story glacier before it crashed into the frigid waters.
Being totally blind, she actually saw none of this and relied on her husband to describe the details of the scene while she soaked up the rest with her remaining senses. “Alaska was just breathtaking,” Slater said. “I’d go back in a minute.”
For decades, the blind have headed to ski slopes, national parks and beaches for holidays. Now, like Slater, a chatty travel agent from St. Louis who lost her sight by her mid-30s, a growing number are heading out on the high seas come vacation time. If a cruise ship sails there, blind travelers have likely followed, Slater said.
Familiar Caribbean spots in the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands remain popular, but blind cruisers have also climbed Mayan ruins in Belize, scampered up waterfalls in Jamaica and touched the totem polls of Alaskan Indian tribes.
Although the cruise industry doesn’t keep statistics, many travel agents and organizations like the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality agree that there has been a sharp increase in cruise travel among the blind in the last five years.
“It’s grown exponentially,” said Jani Nayar, the society’s executive coordinator.
Cruises’ popularity among the blind comes in part from convenience, said Jackie Hull of Outta Sight Travel, a Port St. Lucie, Fla., travel agency that puts together vacation packages for blind travelers. Normally, Hull said, a blind person on vacation would have to find his way to a hotel, then to a restaurant and later to a nightclub or concert hall for entertainment.
“On board, everything is there. It’s so accessible, you get acclimatized at once,” Hull said.
And what they lack in sight, they make up for with their other senses, whether it’s sipping a pina colada, listening to steel drums play on a Jamaican beach or hearing fish jumping during spawning season in Ketchikan, Alaska.
“People would say, ‘Why would you want to travel, you can’t see? You can’t sightsee,’” Hull said. “We go beyond sightseeing; there are other senses.”
Hull and her husband, Gary Metzler, are such big believers that they spend most of their money traveling around the country lecturing on travel opportunities for the blind.
Even before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act 15 years ago, the cruise industry began improving services for the blind.
If given advance notice, most cruise lines allow guide dogs, offer a guided tour of the ship to help orient blind passengers and frequently offer sightless passengers menus, itineraries and even bingo cards in Braille. Carnival Cruise Lines includes a training course for staff members on how to interact with blind passengers and their guide dogs.
And the ships themselves are laid out to avoid confusion.
For example, even though most modern cruise ships usually have 10 to 14 different decks, most activities from dining and dancing to swimming and slot machines can be found on the same three decks. Speaking elevators in most modern ships also help the visually impaired navigate their way around.
“You can’t get lost on a ship,” said Vickie Kennedy, a buoyant 59-year-old Californian from the Bay Area who lost her sight to a degenerative eye disease.
In 2004, Kennedy helped organize one of the larger group cruises for the blind and their guide dogs. It began while making plans for an Alaskan cruise to celebrate her 20th wedding anniversary with her husband, Jim, and guide dog, Freida, a yellow Labrador. After working with the cruise lines to ensure Freida could come aboard, she was told the ship could take two dozen more guide dogs.
Kennedy began making calls and by the time the ship left its dock, 21 dogs were aboard fitted with brand new heavy-duty canine life vests and acclimatized to an ad-hoc doggy latrine on the tail end of the eighth deck, or as Kennedy called it, “the poop deck.”
The ship’s crew took to the canine passengers as well. The dogs would convene on the top deck every afternoon to frolic off leash with crew members who were missing their own dogs. The ship’s captain, Fabio Amitrano, was especially smitten with Kennedy’s companion.
“My Freida had a love affair,” Kennedy said. “The two of them would take strolls on the upper deck together.” At night, after dinner, Kennedy remembered returning to her cabin to find a chocolate on her pillow for herself and a doggy biscuit for Freida.
Such outreach efforts are part of a larger trend in the cruise industry to make travel easier for people with disabilities, said Stephen Mydanick, an executive from the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality.
“Of all the industries, cruise ships have done the most to make people with disabilities at ease,” Mydanick said. And not only the blind, but also wheelchair-bound passengers and people who need dialysis treatments are finding warm welcomes as well as elaborate medical facilities.
“The whole thing has changed from ‘No we can’t do that,’ to ‘Please come cruise with us,’” Mydanick said. “It’s paying off for them, obviously.”
A 2005 study on disabled travel by Open Doors Organization, a Chicago-based nonprofit that advocates for the disabled, found that 12 percent of disabled travelers had taken cruises in the last five years compared with 8 percent of the overall population.
Cruising in general is big business. In 2005, 11 million people took a cruise, making it the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry, according to Cruise Lines International Association, an industry trade group. This strong growth has led to exotic itineraries and new onboard luxuries ranging from Internet cafes to ice-skating rinks. Themed cruises have also shown strong growth.
While today these specialized cruises cater to gourmands with wine tastings and shaved truffles or to fans of Broadway with onboard productions, it’s possible an entire cruise might be geared one day toward the blind, according to Brian Major, an industry spokesman.
And Slater, who arranged her Alaska cruise through Accessible Cruises and Travel, the blind-oriented travel agency she runs in St. Louis, said that recent improvements onboard cruise ships benefited people other than the disabled.
After one of her cruises, Slater said all the blind passengers sent letters to the cruise line praising the crew for their efforts, from waiters describing what food sat where while presenting a plate to building a special area for guide dogs to relieve themselves.
Slater found out later that quite a few sighted passengers sent in letters as well. After sharing a cruise with so many who were sightless, they wrote, in essence, “Thank you, we saw the cruise through new eyes.”