US backs the disabled in suit against cruise industry

The Justice Department charges that a cruise line discriminated against travelers who are blind.

When Joy and Robert Stigile were married last June, they thought it would be fun and exciting to celebrate their honeymoon on a cruise to Alaska.

But their excitement quickly turned to frustration after the cruise line discovered the Stigiles are both blind.

Officials with the cruise line said they would not be permitted on the ship unless they presented a note from their physician verifying that they were "fit to travel." They were asked to sign liability waivers freeing the ship of any responsibility should they be injured during the cruise.

And cruise-line officials suggested that perhaps it would be best if the newlyweds traveled "with an individual in the same cabin who is not sight-impaired" so that the Stigiles could be helped in the event of an emergency on the ship.

The Stigiles promptly made other arrangements for their honeymoon. But they refuse to walk away from what they consider illegal discrimination based on false stereotypes and prejudice against blind passengers.

Their story is at the center of one of the latest lawsuits involving the Americans With Disabilities Act. The US Justice Department has filed the suit in federal court here charging that Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) violated the 1990 law and US civil rights protections when it imposed different standards for prospective cruise-ship passengers who are blind.

"The way I view it, this is a cruise line attempting to impose on a blind person its stereotypes of what a blind person can or cannot do," says Scott LaBarre, a Denver lawyer involved in the case. Mr. LaBarre is president of the National Association of Blind Lawyers.

"The cruise line may have believed that when you are blind, you need a lot more assistance than you actually need and that somebody has to be assigned to you to make sure you are safe and not tripping over things and falling off the ship," he says.

NCL officials have yet to respond to the allegations in the suit. A lawyer for the cruise line, Curtis Mase of Miami, has filed a motion asking that the case be thrown out of court because of what he says are procedural defects in the complaint.

But Mr. Mase declined to comment on whether NCL discriminates against blind passengers. He says, if necessary, that issue will be addressed later in court pleadings.

One issue that may arise in the case is whether NCL, a Bermuda corporation, can be held liable for alleged violations of US law. A three-judge federal appeals court panel in Atlanta ruled last summer that foreign-flagged cruise ships that operate in US waters and dock in US ports are subject to the provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

That case involved a woman in a wheelchair who was assured prior to the cruise that she would be provided a wheelchair-accessible cabin. Hers was not.

At one point, according to press reports, when she complained about being unable to gain access to the toilet without help, a crew member handed her a bucket. That case involved Premier Cruise Lines, which is now out of business.

"In a lot of ways, this is simpler than a wheelchair-access case where the person could be barred by the design of the ship," says LaBarre. "When you are blind, your major barrier is not physical mobility. You can go up steps and step over those watertight ledges."

LaBarre says blind cruise-ship passengers, even those traveling alone, are no more prone to accidents than any other passenger. "This is simply about being able to enjoy the cruise on the same terms and with the same freedom as any other passenger on board," he says.

Not all cruise lines treat blind passengers the way NCL allegedly did. Last week, for instance, Costa Cruise Lines hosted 40 members of the National Association of Blind Merchants aboard one of its Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based cruises. The businessmen and -women were holding their midyear conference during a Caribbean cruise aboard the Costa Victoria.

Association President Kevan Worley has never been on a cruise but says that his group neither sought nor desires any special accommodation. "Costa seems to be treating us like guests," he says.

"We expect businesses, restaurants, movie theaters, and cruise lines to treat us with the same amount of respect and dignity as anyone else," Mr. Worley says.

Don Morris, also a member of the blind merchants association, agrees. Mr. Morris has been on a dozen cruises over the years, including a 21-day sail from Italy to Argentina last fall.

"In all our travels, we have never had a problem," he says. "The fact that we don't see is the only thing about us that is unique."

What if there were an emergency aboard the ship?

Morris answers immediately: "I would be willing to help those people who need my help." He adds, "We go through the same lifeboat drill and life-jacket stuff as everyone else."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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