Accessibility of Foreign-Flagged Cruise Ships-Does the Americans with Disabilities Act Stop at U.S. Shores?

By Huber, Joseph H.; Stein, Julian U. et al. | Palaestra, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Accessibility of Foreign-Flagged Cruise Ships-Does the Americans with Disabilities Act Stop at U.S. Shores?


Huber, Joseph H., Stein, Julian U., MacKool, Jamie L., Palaestra


Cruise ship vacations have become the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry. According to Cruise Line International Association, the cruise ship industry reports deploying 158 ships to North America annually, with an economic impact of $15.5 billion. More than 10 million individuals embarked on ocean voyages last year, with U.S. residents accounting for three out of every four passengers (The Christian Science Monitor, February 28, 2005).

Individuals with disabilities select cruise vacations at higher rates than the general population--12% versus 5% of the general U.S. population within the past 5 years (The New York Times, March 20, 2005). For many travelers with disabilities, a cruise is an ideal vacation. Everything is on board these floating resort hotels--rooms, restaurants, theaters, and one-stop shopping-coupled with travel to exotic lands.

However, every cruise is not a Love Boat experience! For example, in 1999, Douglas Spector booked passage with his wife and other family members on the cruise ship, Norwegian Sea, out of Houston, Texas, to embark on a Caribbean vacation. Spector, who is disabled and needs a scooter for mobility, claimed he paid a premium for his room. There was a two-inch step into the cabin and a foot-high step into the cabin bathroom. The fine dining restaurant, Jacuzzis, and swimming pool areas were also not accessible (Morning Edition, National Public Radio, February 28, 2005). Finally, decks used for lifeboat evacuation were not accessible (ABC News, March 1, 2005).

Foreign-Flag Cruise Ships

The majority of cruise ships have foreign registrations, thus avoiding payment of U.S. taxes and compliance with American labor regulations. In large part, this is due to the age-old practice that the nation registering the ship also governs internal affairs of the ship. However, foreign-flag cruise ships are required to comply with U.S. regulations governing mandatory sanitation inspections of food preservation and preparation (Centers for Disease Control, 2004, December 9), as well as emergency operations, including fire alarm systems and lifeboat drills (U.S. Coast Guard, 2005, March 15).

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires public accommodations (e.g., inns, hotels, restaurants, and theaters) be accessible to guarantee full and equal enjoyment. However, for passengers with impaired mobility, there have been no official government regulations related to accessibility governing foreign-flagged ships docking in United States ports.

In an attempt to make all cruise ships accessible, Douglas Spector sued Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL). The case (Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd., No. 03-1388) never went to trial, because the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes the ports of New Orleans and Houston, ruled that the ADA did not apply. In a similar case, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Fort Lauderdale and Miami, reached the opposite conclusion (The New York Times, March 1, 2005).

On a larger scale, a favorable decision on the Spector case will help to establish accessibility standards for cruise ship lines. However, at the same time, a favorable decision could have an adverse impact on international maritime commerce. Washington, DC attorney Gregory Garre noted in a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court that, "If the United States chose to apply its own accessibility standards to foreign-flagged ships entering its waters, many of the other forty countries around the world with anti-discrimination laws might respond by attempting to apply their own ... standards to foreign-flagged ships, including U.S. ships."

Both the U.S. Justice Department and the Transportation Department argued before the Court that the ADA applies to foreign-flagged cruise ships entering United States waters. Should cruise ship companies, however, be forced to retrofit their older ships at a time when they are being retired and new ships are being built to accommodate needs of travelers with disabilities?

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