Disabled couple gave up accessible room

July 18, 2008 7:15:34 PM PDT
An incident aboard a cruise ship highlights what disability advocates say is a common problem facing the disabled on both land and sea.

For the disabled, having an accessible room can mean the difference between freedom of mobility or being confined to a limited area.

For A Walnut Creek couple, not having an accessible room meant not being able to go on vacation with their best friends.

"It was like a nightmare, as far as I'm concerned," said Noreen Clark from Walnut Creek.

Robert and Noreen Clark estimate they've been on eight cruises during their 45 years of marriage.

But this past may, the couple had to abandon ship before their cruise disembarked from San Francisco.

"When we get on the cruise ship, we go to our cabin and the cabin was so small I couldn't even get my scooter into the cabin," said Robert Clark from Walnut Creek.

Clark lives with multiple sclerosis and hasn't walked in four years.

He says he reserved an accessible room from Royal Caribbean seven months earlier, but something went wrong. He says their room had been given to someone else who wasn't disabled.

The ship's crew tried to find them another room, but was unsuccessful.

"They told us we'd have to leave. And they just took us off the ship," said Robert Clark.

The Clarks left behind their best friends who had traveled from Florida to cruise with the couple.

Jan Garrett is the director of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley. She says the Clarks story is not uncommon.

"It's happened to me. It's happened to others that I know," said Garrett.

Jan says it's happened to her when she tried to check into a hotel. She says the best thing to do when that happens is talk to a manager and others higher up in the company.

"I also try, when I make a reservation, I actually make the hotel fax me back a piece of paper that says I have reserved a wheelchair accessible room for these dates," said Garrett.

That's something the Clarks acknowledge they didn't do. Royal Caribbean says it has no record of the Clarks reserving an accessible room.

The company blamed the problem on miscommunication or human error.

Garrett believes the Clarks were covered under the American With Disabilities Act, but legal experts say that's unclear.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2004 the Disabilities Act does apply to foreign cruise ships such as Royal Caribbean, but only as long as it didn't interfere with the ship's Internal Affairs.

It will be up to lower courts to decide what the justices meant by Internal Affairs.

As for the Clarks, Royal Caribbean issued them a full refund

"Well, I'm happy I got my money back, so that's one consolation. It was a lot of money involved," said Robert Clark.

The Clarks received a refund of $4,100 plus a $1,000 toward a future cruise.


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