Cruising Through Disability

Posted by Kristin Beale in Life After Paralysis on June 16, 2020 # Travel

I’ve done a lot of traveling since my jet ski accident in 2005 – different states, different countries, and probably one hundred airplane rides. Almost 15 years into my disability and as I round the corner toward 30 years old, admittedly, I haven’t done much of that traveling alone. Call me inexperienced or just very close to my family, but I’ve almost always had someone there with me.

My exciting news is: my boyfriend and I got engaged last month, and now we’re planning the honeymoon of our dreams. First on my list of dream destinations is Norway.Kristin Beale and Fiancé

I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone, but there are more than a few extra considerations when planning a trip for someone like me, with a disability. In my case, “disability” is defined by paralysis of my lower extremities and the use of a wheelchair.

First, and one of my most important considerations, is the airplane ride. My ischium (sit bone) and I have a complicated and unhappy relationship. For the first 14 years of my disability, I lived in a constant state of pressure sores. When I finally got to the point of no return and no other option, I had emergency surgery on that area, followed by 30 days of lying on my side in a hospital bed in order for it to heal properly. Since then, I’ve lived a “normal” life in terms of not having to transfer from my wheelchair every 30 minutes to relieve sitting pressure, and I never (ever) want to go back to that. For that reason, I’m extra cautious about a long stretch of an airplane ride; airport layovers are what I count on for those alleviation breaks.

Another role that layovers play in my airplane travel is they give me a chance to stretch out my legs and void my bladder. I realize there are ways to use the bathroom in the air without bothering with an aisle chair or the lack thereof, but I try to eliminate the need for that if I can. If I can break up the trip with a layover, I’ll have a chance to get off my butt, take a bathroom break, and stretch out my legs.

Second, we looked into the accessibility of attractions around our destination. Like I said, Norway is the dream, which also means that it’s outside of the Americans with Disabilities Acts’ regulations and the required equality that I count on in America. Here, attractions and businesses are required to provide access to everyone, despite their physical challenges. Outside of this country, wheelchair accessibility is the big question. In terms of natural attractions, for the most part, forget about it.

Needless to say, I was getting discouraged fast, and I was more discouraged than I thought I would be. I’ve had the Norway dream for so long, and it was starting to look like my wheelchair was going to prevent my fiancé and I from experiencing it. One of the few instances that really gets me bummed out about my disability is when a lack of accessibility causes me to miss out on fun things.

The Accessibility Blanket covers a few things: access to attractions, car rental, and accessible room availability in hotels. In the case of Norway, the Norwegian fjords are only minimally accessible; cars are smaller with limited trunk space and hotels only have so many accessible rooms. It wasn’t looking good for us. I even tried to consider different honeymoon destinations but breaking up with my Norway dream felt similar to breaking up with a boyfriend. For example, a middle school boyfriend that maybe I only went on parent-chaperoned dates with but, still, a boyfriend. I’m only being kind of dramatic here.

I started getting my hope back when we started looking at cruises. In an attempt to get back with my middle school boyfriend, Norway, we searched and found a 7-night Norwegian cruise leaving from England. The airplane ride is just 5 hours long, and it leaves within a month after our wedding date. It felt like Jesus himself had set this up for me.

Again, the drama. But my dramatics are genuine.

Sailing on a cruise has a lot of benefits. Since my stress surrounding a too-long airplane ride is eliminated with our proximity to England, the next consideration is accessibility. The cruise ship is a big-name American line, meaning that all ADA requirements are met, and I’ll have access to a shower bench, wider doorways, a larger floor plan of our stateroom, and all the fun things.

God bless the ADA.

Exploring a country in a cruise ship also means I have a home base – an accessible, comfortable home base. Not to mention if for some reason we find ourselves in need of a relax day, I can do that without worrying about how I’m going to get into a bathroom, which rooms I won’t be able to fit into, or any of the other stresses that roll through my mind while outside of my home. I cannot reiterate enough how relaxing it is to not have to worry about those things. A cruise ship seems like a pretty solid solution to our challenges.

That being said, there is a limited number of those relaxing, welcoming rooms available on a ship and, really, in any lodging facility – they go fast. I’ve run into that problem numerous times in hotels. I learned cruise ships are not exempt from this scenario. Speaking to that point, I advise booking the cruise earlier rather than later. Unavailability of accessible rooms and early booking aren’t as much “Fire Under Your Butt” problems than in a hotel room, but having a room with your name on it does a world of good for lessening the stress and the need for a backup plan. During wedding planning season, I’ll do nearly anything to lessen the stress and throw out my back up plan. Also, I don’t want to live through breaking up with my middle school boyfriend for a third time.

Among a list of losses, I’ve taken with my disability, simplicity of travel is one of them. The extra considerations get more innate with every effort but, at least for me, there’s always something that I forget to consider. More than one time, I’ve altogether forgotten to mention that I need wheelchair accommodations. That makes me seem like a ding dong for leaving out such a big detail, but I’m telling you, there are a lot of things to think about and it can get overwhelming.

I was the first to question the appeal of going on a cruise ship versus exploring the country on our own but, for an overpowering number of reasons, a cruise is a golden ticket for us financially, in regard to accessibility, and my peace of mind.

My exciting news is: next year I’m marrying the man of my dreams, taking the vacation of my dreams, and I’ll quite possibly be dining at the all you can eat shrimp dinner on the cruise ship of my dreams.

Kristin Beale is a native of Richmond, Virginia. She is the author of two books, Greater Things and A Million Suns, and a comic book, Date Me. Check them out and read an excerpt at https://kristinbeale.com/. Her comics can be found on Instagram @Greater.Things.Comics.