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Smoother sailing for the disabled

Wheelchairs, scooters and walkers are becoming common on cruise ships.

Most major ships built in the past five years designed a number of cabins to be wheelchair-accessible. These newer ships' cabins have wider doorways and lower doorsills. The public areas of the ships (bathrooms, dining rooms, lounges, etc.) have also been made more user-friendly for those with physical disabilities.

Before booking a cabin, wheelchair users should question their travel agent or the cruise line representative to be sure a non-collapsible wheelchair can fit through the entrance to the cabin, as well as the doorway to its bathroom. Remember, too, that most ships require passengers to bring their own wheelchair. Those in the ship's infirmary are for emergency purposes only.

Also, ask about a "roll-in" shower for a wheelchair or at least some provision for a shower stool.

Make sure the ship's elevators can accommodate a wheelchair and that the elevators access all the public area decks.

Ask, too, if there are steps leading to any of the public areas.

If a ship calls at a port but anchors offshore, rather than tying up at the dock, a smaller boat, called a tender, is the standard transportation from ship to dock. Find out if that tender _ typically, one of the cruise ship's lifeboats _ is wheelchair-accessible.

Trip insurance is another concern for the traveler with a physical impairment. Make sure the insurance covers any eventuality, regardless of whether the problem is encountered before the trip, while onboard the ship, or ashore. Be sure there is coverage for pre-existing conditions as well.

It is wise to buy passage for a companion who can provide routine assistance onboard. Most crew members can provide only emergency services.

Additional information can be obtained from the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH), a nonprofit organization in New York (www.sath.org).

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