On July 23, 2015, the Justice Department and Carnival Corp. announced a comprehensive and landmark settlement agreement under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to advance equal access for individuals with disabilities who travel on cruise ships. The agreement applies to 62 ships among the Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, and Princess Cruises brands that sail from American ports. The agreement stems from investigations in response to complaints that these cruise lines violate the ADA Act. Carnival did not admit to any wrong doings and the settlement included a civil fine so any individuals who had filed complaints will receive a settlement.
For both the cruise industry and disabled cruisers the agreement has a broad reach. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 provided a set of requirements whose purpose was to ensure a greater degree of access to public accommodation, public transportation, entertainment venues, public buildings and similar venues for the disabled. Shortly after the compliance stage came into effect, cruise lines were targeted for not complying. Initial court decisions were inconsistent. At the heart of the matter were a few key and separate issues. The question of whether the law applied to foreign flag vessels was one of the first to be raised. Both sides could point to laws that applied or did not apply to support their position. Another issue with the flag state being that physical changes to the ship may violate safety laws of the flag nation. Another complex issue was if the rules of SOLAS were to be considered a part of the Safety of Life at Sea treaty that the U.S. was a party. Conflicts such as ADA requiring door lips no higher than .5 inch while SOLAS requiring between 3 and 6 inches.
The court cases raged on until 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Spector vs. Norwegian Cruise Line. The case was heard because two lower federal courts had issued rulings that were the reverse of each other. The result of the case said that the cruise lines did fall under ADA requirements and that the U.S. Access Board would need to set guidelines. Media immediately predicted the collapse of the cruise industry or its movement outside of U.S. ports. However, the ruling also stated that the ADA requirements could not require structural modifications or modifications that threaten the safety of the crew, passengers, or the ship. The court ruled these items would need to be judged on a ship by ship case.
Under the new agreement:
- 42 existing ships and 7 ships in various stages of design and construction will be surveyed and remediated to comply with the ADA regulations. Accessible cabins will be dispersed among the various classes of accommodations and will provide a range of accessible features, including features for guests with hearing impairments.
- Three percent of the cabins on 49 ships will be accessible according to three levels of accessibility: fully accessible cabins, fully accessible cabins with a single side approach to the bed, and ambulatory accessible cabins. The remaining 13 ships will be subject to possible remediation if they continue to be in service in U.S. ports four years after the agreement is entered.
- Carnival Corp. has created brand standards that address an array of accessibility issues andpoliciestoimplement them;
- Carnival Corp. will provide specific ADA training to employees and managers;
- Reservations systems will allow individuals with disabilities to reserve accessible cabins and suites with specific available options and amenities, and to guarantee reservations for accessible cabins;
- The accessibility of Carnival Corp. websites and mobile applications will comply with WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA;
- Carnival Corp. will appoint an ADA compliance officer at the executive level, two ADA responsibility officers – one for Carnival Cruises and one for Holland America Group, which includes Holland America Line and Princess Cruises, and ADA shipboard officers for each ship who are responsible for resolving ADA-related issues that arise at sea; and
- Carnival Corp. will pay a civil penalty of $55,000 to the United States and $350,000 in damages to individuals harmed by past discrimination.
One interesting point in the agreement is that there need to be three classifications of accessible staterooms on each ship and they must be equally available. As an example, if a ship has 12 categories of staterooms, a ADA standard stateroom must be available in each of the 12. If a category does not have one built and standard rooms of that category are available for sale, disabled passengers can book in the category and be given a free upgrade to the next available disabled stateroom.
While there are a number of different action items, the retrofits must be done within seven years.