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June 6, 2005

ADA applies to cruise ships

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to foreign flag cruise ships visiting U.S. ports. The International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL) says it welcomes the decision.

In a 5-4 decision, notes ICCL, "the Supreme Court recognized the complexity of the application of domestic U.S. laws to ships at sea. While ruling that Title III of the ADA is applicable to foreign ships in U.S. waters, the court also decided that any structural alterations under the ADA must be 'readily achievable,' not conflict with international safety requirements, nor interfere with the internal operation of the ship. The court also ruled that 'Title III's own limitations and qualifications prevent the statute from imposing requirements that would conflict with the international obligations or threaten shipboard safety.'

In its opinion, says ICCL, the court recognized the numerous technical issues that are associated with harmonizing accessibility and safety requirements for ships. The International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), ratified by the United States, dictates particular design, construction and operation standards for all oceangoing ships. These include maintenance of water tight compartments, fire safe zones, unobstructed emergency egress and mandatory participation in fire drills. Unlike buildings, ships must be completely self sufficient in the remote event of a maritime emergency as they do not have immediate access to shore side resources when on the high seas.

For guests with special needs, says ICCL, the popularity of cruising is due in large part to the great strides made by ICCL member lines in making ships more and more accessible. Many find cruises to be more convenient and accessible than destinations outside the United States. Despite the unique challenges invariably encountered when sailing on the ocean, ICCL cruise ships routinely accommodate wheelchairs, electric mobility devices and service animals; provide wheelchair-accessible cabins and communication auxiliary aids; and make every reasonable effort without sacrificing safety to accommodate all guests.

The cruise industry's responsiveness in accommodating guests worldwide has resulted in a substantial and growing number of travelers with special needs choosing this form of vacation experience. Cruise lines continue to offer an accessible vacation option although neither the ADA nor any subsequent regulations have clarified precisely what foreign-built ships must do to reconcile accessibility with mandatory international safety standards.

"We will continue to work with the U.S. Access Board to ensure that regulations under development will properly reflect this opinion of the Supreme Court," says ICCL. "We will also work hard to ensure that cruise ships remain one of the most accessible vacations available to all travelers".

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