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Renovated ship falls short of passenger's needs

Patricia Pursley, who uses a wheelchair, was anxious about her first trip on a cruise ship. However, Carnival Cruise Lines assured her she'd be helped with her special needs.

Instead, Pursley said, the five-day Caribbean cruise on the Jubilee out of the Port of Tampa "was like a nightmare."

She said she slept in her wheelchair, could not visit the buffet, waited hours before being assisted off the ship at ports and had trouble maneuvering around laundry carts in the halls.

"They were very unfriendly toward wheelchairs," said Pursley, who lives in St. Petersburg.

Yet Pursley was on board a ship already renovated to meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In fact, she stayed in a "specially equipped stateroom designed for physically challenged guests," said Jennifer de la Cruz of Carnival.

"We are in the midst of a multimillion dollar program designed to make our ships more accessible," said de la Cruz, Carnival's public relations director.

The Jubilee was the first ship in Carnival's fleet to undergo structural changes such as widening doorways and installing shower seats, lower desks and cabin doors.

Carnival settled a lawsuit last year agreeing to make its ships more handicap accessible.

Attorney Matthew Dietz filed the discrimination lawsuit in 1998 on behalf of Access Now, a nonprofit group for Americans with disabilities.

"They didn't breach the terms of the settlement" in Pursley's case because Carnival made the physical changes to its fleet, he said.

But Dietz said Carnival may have fallen short on procedures and policies that weren't covered in his group's lawsuit. Pursley's unhappy voyage raises the trickier question of what counts as a good-faith effort to help the disabled.

"The ADA isn't something that says that you have to take care of every single wish but you do have to do everything in your power to accommodate them," said Dietz.

When booking her May trip, Pursley filled out a special requirements form specifying what she would need while on board.

De la Cruz said the ship's crew tried to accommodate her, and she said the purser's log from the cruise documents their attempts.

De la Cruz also said Pursley's travel agent described her as "fully independent" on the reservation record.

Pursley says that description fits. "I can do for myself as long as I have the right equipment," she said. "I fight every day of my life to do what I have to do."

Pursley travels alone often.

"I've been to Las Vegas, Biloxi, Fort Lauderdale," said Pursley, without any problems. "I've been to Las Vegas seven times in two years."

She thought a cruise would be something new and different.

"I can understand that some places I can't go because I can't walk and I have to be in a wheelchair," she said. "This was an older ship but they didn't explain that to me before. They said no problem."

Pursley requested a raised toilet and a bed of a specific height in order to transfer from her chair.

Neither was in her cabin when she arrived.

When she called the purser, crew members brought the raised toilet but Pursley said their attempts to adjust the bed were unsuccessful. They finally placed her in the bed and agreed to help her out in the morning.

When morning came Pursley said she could not reach the phone to answer her wake-up call and beat on the wall for an hour until someone came to get her.

For the next three nights she slept in her chair.

She had to ask other passengers to get her food from a buffet at the top of stairs. She said when she called the purser to plug in her chair for recharging he asked her to do it herself.

"They should have refused me if they weren't going to take care of me," she said.

Carnival sent Pursley an apologetic letter and a 10 percent discount off her next cruise.

"I would be crazy to get on a cruise again," she said. "I think I'll stick to Las Vegas and Biloxi."