Life holds many challenges for Nola Millin (pictured).
She has cerebral palsy and gets around in a wheelchair. Her speech is impaired. She requires help with the basics of everyday life — feeding, dressing, bathroom activities. She’s a diabetic who requires regular insulin injections. She uses several devices to communicate with people who cannot understand her speech. These include a word board and a Dynavox 5, nicknamed “V”, which speaks whatever she types into it.
But Millin, 47, loves to travel, so when she learned that a conference she regularly attends was to be held in Barcelona last July, she decided to take the opportunity to see a little bit of Europe via a cruise of the western Mediterranean.
“I wasn’t travelling that far to be cooped up in buildings all day,” Millin says. “I wanted to actually see places, so we decided to take a Mediterranean cruise.”
This wasn’t something Millin could do on her own. Even going shopping or to see a doctor involves planning and assistance. Fortunately her good friend and colleague, speech pathologist Toni Southern, 53, (pictured) was also planning to attend the ISAAC (International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, a UNESCO-sponsored organization) conference and agreed to act as her attendant. Southern’s much older sister was enlisted to ease the burden on the primary attendant.
They chose a Norwegian Cruise Line excursion leaving from Barcelona that dovetailed nicely with the conference dates. The Norwegian Jade made stops in Monte Carlo, Monaco; Livorno, Civitavecchia and Naples in Italy; and Palma, Majorca.
They booked the cruise about five months before the conference, but even so the accessible staterooms were going fast. Their best choice was not the largest, but it had a window.
The cabin was a tight fit for three guests, but it ticked all the boxes — the doorways were wide enough to accommodate Millin’s wheelchair, the beds were low, there was no step up into the bathroom and the bathroom came equipped with a roll-in shower, with a fold-down seat and adjustable height spray and safety bars in appropriate locations. The mirror even tilted.
Most cruise lines promote themselves as being friendly to physically challenged cruisers. They offer a range of accommodation from regular staterooms to the fully accessible and usually have some that fall in between. They advertise they are ready to meet the needs of the visual and hearing impaired and even accept guide dogs. Some allow guests who require oxygen and kidney dialysis. There are limitations on pregnant women and they reasonably insist that those who can’t manage by themselves be accompanied by those who can provide personal care.
Once on board passengers with disabilities can get around very well. Elevators make transitions from floor to floor easy, and most public areas are accessible. The theatre on the Norwegian Jade had a special area for wheelchairs and other cruise lines indicate this is standard.
The staff and crew seemed to go out of their way to be helpful from the moment we entered the boarding area. There was a registration desk dedicated to those with special needs and personal assistants to help us through the process.
“The staff was wonderful with me,” Millin says. “Someone would hold my tray and go around with us as we selected our foods at breakfast and at lunch buffet.”
There was usually someone hovering around to help us out in the dining rooms in the evening, even offering to cut up her food.
NCL promotes what it calls “freestyle dining,” which means guests have a choice of restaurants, some of which require a cover fee. Besides the ship’s grand dining rooms, other restaurant choices include upscale steakhouse, Japanese teppanyaki, Italian and French. Millin’s party usually opted for one of the traditional dining rooms, because they liked the formal presentation, but also enjoyed surf ’n turf in the steakhouse.
A typical day began with breakfast in the buffet, followed by a shore excursion, drinks on the pool deck, dinner, then attending a show and playing the slots in the casino next door to the theatre.
In between there was shopping on board or the Internet café — where Millin could catch up on work. She’s an on-line psychology instructor at St. Clair College in Windsor and still had some summer-course papers to mark. (She also works for ISAAC, posting articles on its web-based information exchange, and has a motivational speaking business on the side.)
Millin loved being on board the ship — “There’s so much to do, I don’t really need to get off the ship,” she says.
But of course she did, at every port of call.
Because she needs major help to transfer in and out of her wheelchair and because excursion buses with lifts aren’t readily available, Millin and her friends chose to go their own way when they got off the ship. In Monaco, the city buses were wheelchair accessible and a cheap way to see the area.
In Civitavecchia, the little group hired a cab to take them to Rome, an hour’s drive away. Because of the complications involved in transferring Millin into and out of the vehicle and assembling and disassembling and packing the wheelchair into the car, as well as the limited time available, they decided to simply hit the high spots, instead of taking tours of the attractions. So they stopped and walked around St. Peter’s Square, the Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum and the Roman forum, but simply drove past many of the other sights — including, naturally, the Spanish Steps — and ended up at a viewing area up one of the hills to catch a grand panoramic view of the Imperial City.
The most difficult excursion day began in the port city of Livorno, an access point for both Pisa and Florence. MillinMillin and her friends were advised to choose Pisa because it is much closer and the streets were said to be less steep. The shuttle bus from the ship was accessible, but then the challenges began. They were directed to an intercity bus to Pisa — also accessible, although Southern had to stand the whole hour’s drive along a quite pretty coast to Pisa.
The bus took them to the terminal area, but there was no tourist information obviously available, so they just started walking in the heat — uncomfortable on the cobbled streets and narrow sidewalks with inadequate cutouts. They eventually found their way to Campo dei Miracoli and the famous leaning tower, mostly through good luck.
Again, none of the buildings was accessible, but they enjoyed the sights, the tourist markets, and wonderful pizza on a side street near the square.
Getting back was more difficult. None of the taxis would take the exhausted trio to Livorno, but a pleasant cabbie did drop them off at the train station, where they found that the “convenient” trains could not accommodate someone in a wheelchair without a day’s notice. So it was back to the bus station and another long hot bus ride back to Livorno. At least when they got there, the shuttle service drummed up an accessible bus just for them.
Cruise lines do warn that accessible excursions may be difficult to arrange for the severely disabled, but suggest that it might be possible to organize appropriate transportation given sufficient notice.
Southern admits that they could have been better organized about booking excursions but also was very satisfied with the taxi tours. They turned out to be less expensive than ship-organized excursions, and possibly less tiring, especially considering that the temperature in Italy was hovering around 37C during the visit.
Millin loved the excursions and the opportunity to visit fabled attractions. Hiring cabs for a fixed price gave her and her friends the freedom to go where they wanted when they wanted . . . and to go back to the ship when they were tired.
Per person, the cruise itself cost about $1,150 Canadian, all taxes and insurance included, but not personal expenditures, liquor, etc. Airfare (Delta from Detroit to Barcelona, connecting in Amsterdam) was about $1,440. Cab fares tallied about $400.
Millin feels she got good value for the money.
Now that she’s back at work in Windsor, she’s already hinting that she’s ready for another cruise. She’d certainly recommend it to others in her situation.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
The Toronto Star:
Posted by BA Haller at 4:07 PM