With feet firmly planted

Everyone said it’d be easy. Cruising, that is. Ships are handicapped accessible, right? So in the fog following my primary progressive multiple sclerosis diagnosis, last winter, I called the travel agents at Expedia, eager to escape our snowy winter and icy sidewalks.

I’d cruised-toured just seven months earlier, a 40th birthday trip-of-a-lifetime to Alaska, and though I was undiagnosed, my PPMS had already taken most of the feeling from my legs. I clung to my friend Lindsay as we hiked, visited a sled-dog camp and went whitewater rafting on the Mendenhall River. Now, six months later, my disease had progressed even more, and I was using a walker and scooter to get around. Would cruising really be as easy as I thought?

Our son, 7 at the time, begged for a Disney cruise. An Expedia travel agent walked me through the handicapped-accessible cabins available on a sailing in early March, then asked me to share, if I didn’t mind, why I needed an accessible cabin. Her answer sealed my decision to go as much as my diagnosis: a week earlier, she had also been diagnosed with PPMS.

Only MSers and our friends with mobility issues will understand this, but I will never forget how it felt to step out of the Fort Lauderdale airport onto dry concrete. It had been snowy and icy at home for the past four months, and being able to walk without looking at my feet or fear of falling was, quite simply, priceless.

And our accessible cabin on the Disney Wonder, with a verandah off of the back of the ship, was the largest I’d ever stayed in. The spacious bathroom had a roll-in shower, grab bars, ADA toilet and an emergency pull cord, easing my worries about navigating that space.

And the cruise itself? In some ways, it’s easy. Disney’s customer service is unparalleled, and their staffers were quick to open doors and carry my buffet trays. My husband and son also took turns opening many doors for me. We shook our heads at the many able-bodied passengers who would sweep past us to enter the elevators, prompting long waits for a lift. And reaching the public accessible bathroom on Deck 4 was not easy when you’re having lunch on Deck 9.

What I couldn’t have predicted was the lack of accessibility in the shore excursions. The ship stopped in Cozumel, Mexico, and we were excited to take Colin into his first foreign country to swim with the dolphins. The only problem? I couldn’t go. Even though my husband could get in the water with Colin, I wouldn’t even be able to access the viewing platform, reachable by a set of cobblestone steps. Travelers with walkers are not allowed to negotiate those stairs. Of all of the shore excursions offered, the only one with a solidly accessible option was a tequila tasting. I declined.

Instead, we stayed on the ship while nearly all of the other 2,400 passengers disembarked for the day. And really, that worked out OK. Colin had the waterslide and pool practically to himself, and I was able to sit in a shaded area dangling my legs into the pool and watch. I learned quickly that sitting out in the sun with my morning coffee — even at 8 a.m. — would torpedo my day. But Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay, had accessible trams, beach-ready wheelchairs and accessible places to eat and play, and for the first time in years, I went snorkeling in the crystalline blue water.

Like MS itself, cruising wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. But it gave my family and I hope that we could in fact continue to travel and try new things. And we’re hoping to go again later this year—to a destination that’s new to all three of us.

Tags Parenting, Progressive MS      10 Appreciate this
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Kendra L.

Kendra L. Williams

Kendra L. Williams is a longtime writer and editor and the founder of MStravels.org, a blog about the ups and downs of handicapped accessible travel. She lives in West Des Moines, Iowa.

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    32 Comments

  • Avatar
    Constance56  Feb 18, 2015 11:25 AM
    Thanks for sharing. I, too, have PPMS, but my cruise took place before I was diagnosed, so I was still questioning why certain things were wrong with my body. I appreciated the fact that everyone aboard walked like they were tipsy.
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    marshina  Feb 18, 2015 11:55 AM
    Funny as I am just finishing up a story about a cruise leaving SF to Mexico. With 2300 people, many disabled, we could not get off at three of the 4 stops. The cobblestone streets would puncture a wheel on my scooter. Lounge chairs to low, gambling seats to high. I thought I could manage a non-handicap room. The step up to the bathroom was difficult and the room so small, the travel scooter blocked access. We made it work with kindness from the staff but never again.
  • June   Feb 18, 2015 12:26 PM
    I'm confused by what you said in the first paragraph "...my PPMS had already taken most of the feeling from my legs. I clung to my friend Lindsay as we hiked, visited a sled-dog camp and went whitewater rafting. . ." You were able to walk (without something, walker, scooter etc.)?
  • Judith   Feb 18, 2015 1:41 PM
    Did you take a mobility scooter? That has made a big difference to me. I found that Norwegian had much easier doors to open. Crew was good helping with scooter when the pitch was too steep getting off the ship. Excursions could be much better defined for mobility. Some advertised as no walking still had stairs, lol. MS isn't for sissies.
  • Patti Murray   Feb 18, 2015 2:13 PM
    Thanks for sharing with us your experience. I also have MS and people all think because I don't look sick that I am somehow not that bad. The truth is that I am in pain every day and most of the time just want to sit and rest. It's nice to read someone's story that shares the same problems that I do. Keep them coming!
  • Carol   Feb 18, 2015 2:41 PM
    Don't be discouraged. My husband had M S and was confined to a wheelchair and we took many cruise. To Italy, Alaska the carribbean etc. most places he could get off the ship & we could get an accessible van. You just have to ask for whatever you need to make your ltrip easier. Very few places he couldn't get off. Enjoy what you can while you can.
  • Maureen Mc Kinney   Feb 18, 2015 4:29 PM
    We did a cruise to Alaska in 2008 when my husband could still use a walker a tiny bit, but know from that trip that now that he's wheelchair bound with PPMS cruises are out of the question. We only went ashore for about half the stops and we were quite limited where we could go once off The ship. They mare it sound easy, but that's not the case. we also found many able-bodied people quite rude!
  • Frank Stobaugh   Feb 18, 2015 4:45 PM
    I have had MS for 30 years, I have good days and bad days, I work 3 days
    A week, I also have Miners Dis. So I have 2,things going on at the
    Same time. Bless everyone that has either.
  • Philippa Brysiuk   Feb 18, 2015 5:43 PM
    We have been cruising with my MS as I have progressed from a wheelchair to a cane to a walker to a scooter (which I rent and have waiting on board). We just got back 2 weeks ago from a Royal Caribbean cruise and they had an accessible washroom on almost every deck. We took taxi tours (one boasted an accessible taxi - the driver and my husband had to lift the scooter in and out but there was a special chair to help me get in). People racing you to the elevator happens everywhere, unfortunately. Keep cruising, the crew on all except in my experience Norwegian Cruise line are excellent.
  • Renee Gardner   Feb 18, 2015 5:59 PM
    Hello I would love to meet with you all on a cruise I was diagnose Dcember 12th on my birthday 2013 I still like to enjoy myself GOD IS A GOOD GOD AMEN tru HAVE TRUST FAITH BELIEVE IN THE NAME OF JESUS GOOD LUCY TO ALL OF YOU
  • shauna   Feb 18, 2015 6:00 PM
    I so enjoyed reading about your travels. My mother passed from complications with MS just over 3 years ago. She always wanted to go on a cruise, but was not able. My niece is riding in the MS150 in my mother's memory to raise money and awareness to fight this terrible disease. Thank you for sharing your story.. Shauna Ardis
  • Brandy   Feb 18, 2015 6:05 PM
    I chuckled to myself while reading this. I use a motorized scooter and had similar concerns about accessibility when my husband surprised me with the news that he booked a family cruise aboard the Disney Dream. The Disney service was impeccable! The staff was willing and able to make sure my family and I could do as much ad possible together. However, we had the same problem with the elevator. What really got me was one parent told her child to go behind me while I was backing into the elevator (to make getting out easier) and I barely missed the child! We all left knowing we would cruise Disney again, but also giving feedback to consider a handicapped only elevator.
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    Jeanie3  Feb 18, 2015 6:09 PM
    Thank you for the absolute hope, inspiration and a million other awesome good feelings reading your story and for the first time fully understand tears of happiness.
    Good luck and have a great time on all you do!!!
  • Suzie Hieter   Feb 18, 2015 6:54 PM
    I'm glad that you made the effort to enjoy an experience that might have put you out of your 'comfort zone.' The closest I've come to a cruise was joining two friends on a sailboat jaunt with a friend of a friend piloting the ship w/his girlfriend. Four fun filled days. We brought my wheelchair that stayed in a dingy, and accompanied our jaunts to shore on R.I. I could walk short distances then, holding onto furniture and wood work. I was dx'd in '70, and have used the wheelchair exclusively since '87. My dx is now secondary progressive MS. I'm of the persuasion that one can do most everything in a modified fashion. I've personally observed that my endeavours stretch both myself and countless others, the "abled" and "disabled." The last five years have been accompanied by many complications, and I have been unable to return to Morelia in Mexico; I'm planning a week's visit in Sept. I began travelling in Mexico in '94 when I first went there to study Spanish, and continued to travel there, sometimes four times a year, until 2009 when I fractured a few bones. I drive, and I travel by plane, train and buses. I used to climb into buses if someone put my left foot, onto a step, step by step. I weight less than 100 lbs, and now I ask someone to carry me onto the bus; the women stare at the Gringa, and I tell them in Spanish that we are going to be on the bus for four hours and that I am the only entertainment. We all laugh, and stereotypes have been shattered.
  • Brian Rippett   Feb 18, 2015 9:11 PM
    The International Treaty supporting the ADA didn't pass the Senate
    It's a shame our congress a few years back failed to pass a new treaty supported by Bob Dole and anyone else with a brain, because they felt it would harm our national sovereignty. So while you, me, and others suffering from PPMS, I can sleep better knowing we we still have our sovereignty fully intact...no wait I can't sleep because insomnia is big problem with most MS patients. But that's ok because that'll give me more time to figure where our sovereignty was going had we signed this treaty.
  • Brenda Pannell   Feb 19, 2015 7:50 AM
    It was a pleasure reading your article. I have wondered about a cruise, especially now at this time in my life. I am 57 with progressing MS period. I have been married 38 years and with him 39, Now that I have worsened, it is difficult for him as well. I had a severe brain seizure as well as learned diabetes type 2 now resides in this old running down body of mine. MS not only robs you of your physical abilities, it robs you of life, one moment at a time

    I will take one moment and one day and grow with love, Brenda
  • Nick Giordano   Feb 19, 2015 2:12 PM
    My wife and I recently went to Cancun and stayed at an all inclusive resort. Totally accessible and easy for me to use my scooter wherever we went. However, when we took an 'accessible' tour of some Mayan ruins we found out that after walking/scooting for over an hour on rough paths, the only way to exit was to go all the way back around to the entrance where we came in. If only they would have told us. Don't be afraid to ask, ask, ask.
  • Bree   Feb 19, 2015 2:45 PM
    I find that interesting. As we began cruising due to my husband's MS diagnoses; because if he does not feel like getting off the ship we still have fun on board.
    I am not surprised of the lack of accessible excursions in a foreign country as their laws are different.
    I am sorry you did not achieve the level of pleasure you were hoping.
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    Angela Allen  Feb 19, 2015 7:30 PM
    Thanks for sharing Kendra, it's good to hear that someone is advocating for handicap accessibility issues. That's what I plan on doing also, using my writing and photography skills.

    I was diagnosed with Remitting-Relapsing MS in 2003, at the age of 32. It wasn't so bad at first, but in the past two years has progressed significantly. I now use a cane, walker, and more often than not a wheelchair, due to balance issues and knee pain.

    This has led me to see things about mobility and handicap accessibility that I never imagined. It amazes me how little accessibility is provided for us, even in some Doctor's offices.

    I wish the abled of society, only knew what pain and hardship the disabled routinely endure to navigate their way around on a daily basis, through life's most ordinary and simple situations.
  • Gerri Ballas   Feb 21, 2015 10:53 AM
    You wrote a great piece on cruising. I've thought about it but don't have the courage to travel anymore. Planes are not fun or enjoyable anymore. Ships are confining and the boarding and deboarding are very tiresome. My husband and I took 2 cruises years ago and enjoyed up to a point. Now that I have limited abilities I fear traveling. Thanks for helping me see the bright side. God bless.
  • Steve Echols   Feb 23, 2015 8:35 AM
    My wife and I traveled long with another couple on a Mediterrean cruise for 12 days last June. I have secondary Progressive MS but still continue to use a cane and at times a walker. For the cruise I rented a scooter but did not try to secure a handicap room. The scooter was difficult to get into and out of the room but was a great help in the ship.

    When it came to shore excursions we avoided any that said heavy walking as well as those with moderate walking. Thus, at our first stop in Venice, we had to take the large water taxi tour that was easy to enjoy since it had many seats. This went outside the main canal thru the heart of Venice but offered a chance to take some really nice pictures of the buildings on the water while other ships passed in front of them.

    At Dubrovnik, Croatia we passed up going on a walking tour of the old walled city which juts out into the sea. It is a truly beautiful place to see, but I knew better than to take this tour. By some great luck, we were moored in a slip where a main road was right there beside us. From our balcony I saw sighs posted by the cab stand offering panoramic tours of Dubrovnik for 1 hour for 40 Euros. We jumped on this and hailed a cab as we went to the street. I explained to the driver that I wanted as many stops as possible where I could take pictures of the old city from any place where it could be viewed. This was a great success since I had a zoom lens on the camera allowing shots from any distance to be excellent.

    At one point the driver took us up the mountain road behind the city , went across the highway and took a single lane road up to the top of a small mountain. Here I could get great pictures looking down to see the entire walled city, with smaller ships nearby, blue water and red roofs on the buildings. It made for some great shots.

    As we started to go back down, we had to stop for a sad moment as we watched a man with tears on his face place two bunches of flowers on two graves on the right side of this road. These loved ones were killed during a pitched battle on the other side of this mountain during the Bosnian war some fifteen or more years ago. This was a stark reminder of what is really important in this world of ours.

    One other stop I should mention was at the port of Naples. The only tour we could take there was a tour by a small van for the two of us and one other couple around parts of Naples that are adjacent to the sea coast. Some of these spots offered a chance to take some nice shots of the scenery. Even better was the beautiful harbor of Naples itself. Here it helped to go to the 16th floor of the ship and go outside on the deck and take nice pictures of the ships moored there by an ancient fortification wall as well as shots of the old brown castle that was near the water with the rest of the city in the background gradually ascending the hill.

    i guess what I am saying here is that while walking tours are not going to work in much of Europe because of the cobblestone streets, and other impediments, you can still see sights that you will never forget. You may need to inquire of the people on ship who advise travelers of the tours available, and what alternative types of transportation might work for you.
    Good luck !
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    LindaB182  Mar 1, 2015 6:28 PM
    Good information.I haven't been on a cruise in several years,before I started having any symptoms. These are things I will need to be prepared for. Thanks
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    ISLP2  Mar 3, 2015 9:10 AM
    I, too, am amazed at the lack of excursions for handicapped people on cruise ships. At a stop in Belize, I wanted to see the rain forest. When I read about a jeep ride through the forest, I discovered that only a "thrill ride" was offered. Such a ride is impossible for me to endure.
    Cruise lines have tremendous leverage over the providers of shore excursions. The only reason there are so few interesting shore excursions for handicapped people is that the cruise lines have not asked their providers to design them.
  • Gretchen   Mar 9, 2015 11:37 AM
    went lat summer on the Hurtigruten, a quasi cruise, mail, working boat o the Norwegian fjords. I loved it very relaxing and peaceful. Would be boring for a kid tho!
  • Jennifer   Mar 15, 2015 5:38 PM
    I just returned from a cruise on Royal Caribbean. I have RRMS and luckily was able to stay on my feet most of the time. The after dinner shows took their toll and made me wish I brought my scooter (which I tried to keep in my room and not use if possible). Note to anyone cruising-do not go in March and April-the spring breakers are rude and pushy. Anyway-the last day I could hardly walk-guess I over did it so I was alone while my family was at the pool. The biggest problem- I would wait for an elevator. When the doors opened, if there was no one in there and no one around, the doors would close before I could get inside. After missing several, I put the scooter in rabbit mode and flew into the next open one hoping there was no one to run over. Side note-to get to some shows, you had to get through the casino-that was fun on a scooter :)
  • Cindy for David   Mar 19, 2015 7:14 AM
    What happens if you are already in a motorized wheelchair with no walking abilities? Is it still easy to take a trip like that with their accomadations? My husband has secondary progressive ms. And has always wanted to go on a cruise. I on the other hand just want to go anywhere :).... I am afraid to take that chance of something happening that requires medical attention. Any suggestions?
  • Marlou Beader   Jun 12, 2015 2:38 PM
    I used to be a big walker, but my knee would give out when I got tired.This is the 6th year & now I use a Quantum mobility chair at home & a Luggie scooter when I go out. I was dx with ppms May 2010. I am reading your articles with great interest & hope. I miss traveling & experiencing new adventures. If you can do it, maybe I can too. Thank you so much for writing these articles.
  • Jacqulyn Henderson   Oct 15, 2015 10:45 AM
    Reading your comments have made me more at ease about taking a cruise again, I have MS and use my walker I'm afraid to be without it, I have had several falls and have dislocated both of my shoulders. Before my MS advance to the point of me to using a walker I have been on eleven cruises, now I'm afraid but reading your statements have greatly changed my mind or in other words have given me hope that I can still enjoy myself. Thank you so very much for sharing your experience.
  • Jacqulyn Henderson   Oct 15, 2015 10:45 AM
    Reading your comments have made me more at ease about taking a cruise again, I have MS and use my walker I'm afraid to be without it, I have had several falls and have dislocated both of my shoulders. Before my MS advance to the point of me to using a walker I have been on eleven cruises, now I'm afraid but reading your statements have greatly changed my mind or in other words have given me hope that I can still enjoy myself. Thank you so very much for sharing your experience.
  • James Zappolo   Oct 17, 2015 1:18 PM
    Thanks for the article, traveling is a big question for me! You don't know what you are getting yourself into!
    How was the plane ride for accessability? Can the ship and plane handle a motorized wheelchair? Thank's again!
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    Ironsides  Jul 15, 2016 12:29 PM
    As impressive as the accommodations are for people with a disability, cruise ships have very few options for people with mobility needs on short excursions. I have secondary progressive MS and am confined to a power chair. I was ready to stop traveling beyond the area around where I live until I found a travel agency that specializes in travel for people with disabilities. It's based in Minnesota and it's called Flying Wheels Travel. Here's the link: http://flyingwheelstravel.com.

    I have traveled with them on three major trips and they are fantastic. Because of their focus and advance work, they have established connections with tour operators that can accommodate wheelchairs and know the ropes with regard to accessibility, even in places where you would think a wheelchair could never go. Obviously, this kind of service costs more than a regular tour, but they have a wide range of tour options at different price levels. I urge you to take a look at what they have to offer. I couldn't provide a higher recommendation for their attention to detail and commitment to helping people with special needs.
  • Susan Davis   May 1, 2017 9:11 PM
    My daughter was just diagnosed, and I am still wrapping my head around it. She's 28 and still not sure what her full prognosis is, still being tested for what mess, etc. we had previously talked about a cruise together. How did you arrange medical care on board, in case of emergency? I am new to research and blogging. I found your article very helpful!