A trip to the Caribbean can be a challenge for someone with a physical disability, but that doesn’t make it impossible. Disabled individuals can enjoy a Caribbean vacation just as well as anyone else. Vacationing in the Caribbean can be easy or challenging depending on how well you prepare for the accessibility challenges that you will encounter. With a little research and some thoughtful decision-making, handicapped travelers can make their dreams of paradise a reality.
The most common manner of reaching the Caribbean islands are airplanes and cruise ships. Most airlines and cruise ship operators have accommodations for travelers with physical disabilities but these can vary widely. It is recommended that vacationers contact their airline or cruise operator before booking their trip to find out what kind of services and facilities are available for special needs travelers.
Selecting a Destination
Every destination has some accessible parts and some inaccessible parts. Some countries in the Caribbean are more handicap-accessible than others. Due to the large numbers of visitors that arrive each year, many of the region’s islands have been making efforts to improve conditions for vacationers with disabilities. By doing a little research prior to leaving, vacationers with physical disabilities can find an island that is perfect for their traveling needs. Here are some islands in the Caribbean that have made an extra effort in accommodating those travelers with physical handicaps:
Grand Cayman: Like Turks and Caicos, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, and Bermuda, the Cayman Islands are a British Overseas Territory which means there are stricter accessibility standards than most Caribbean islands. Good sidewalk ramps & flat terrain make it easy for wheelchair users to get around. There exists one major accessibility hurdle for disabled cruise passengers however, all of the main cruise lines use tenders (rather than a pier) to bring passengers ashore. A variety of factors (including weather) will determine if disabled cruise passengers can go ashore.
St Thomas: offers numerous accessible activities for disabled visitors. Because of the good St. Thomas disabled access features, it has accessible van transportation to get around the island and it has good accessibility features like sidewalk ramps, flat town centers, and accessible beach and water activities. St. Thomas is a hilly island and it has a shortage of low four-door taxis which makes it difficult for disabled visitors.
Aruba: disabled access is better than many Caribbean islands due to its Dutch heritage and flat terrain. Wheelchair ramps on sidewalks and wheelchair accessible vans make getting around the island easier than other destinations like Grand Turk, Grenada, and Freeport. This gives the disabled cruise passengers a much easier time in Aruba than other ports of call. Visiting the main attractions doesn’t include steep hikes to waterfalls, old historical buildings, or mountainous terrain.
At the Airport
Navigating an international airport can be hectic at best, especially for those with disabilities. To make the process easier there are a few things that disabled travelers should consider before they arrive at the airport.
*Medical Certificates: Just because a traveler is disabled doesn’t mean that the airline will request a medical certificate, but if there is concern whether or not the passenger can complete the flight without extra medical assistance airline officials may ask for medical documentation.
*Airport Accessibility: Some of the smaller airports in the Caribbean may not have the same facilities for physically disabled travelers as in the larger airports in the United States. Vacationers are advised to contact every airport on the itinerary to inquire about the type of facilities that are offered.
*Boarding the plane: Many of the Caribbean airports are small and airplane passengers often have to take stairs to reach the tarmac. Some airplanes are equipped with lifts that lower disabled passengers to the tarmac with the assistance of an airline employee.
In compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), many cruise lines are providing more accessible facilities on cruise ships. Cruise ships have cabins with wider doorways and flat thresholds, as well as wheel-in showers, on-board ramps, elevators, and activities that are easily accessible for guests with disabilities. One of the best cruise lines for passengers with disabilities is Princess Cruise Lines, which has been designing ships that have cabins that are wheelchair-friendly since 1984. Carnival, Holland America, and Crystal are other options that have cabins specifically for disabled passengers, as well as handicap-accessible public areas. These cruise lines also have ships with facilities like hydraulic lifts to get in and out of the pool and casinos with wheelchair-approachable slot machines.
Upon docking, physically challenged passengers may encounter other problems like getting from the boat to the island and finding handicap-accessible activities. Some cruise lines have installed lifts to assist travelers with getting to and from the ship.
Depending on which destinations you choose, you might encounter different accessibility challenges:
• Cobblestones – In old historic cities like San Juan and Key West you will likely encounter cobblestones that can make rolling a wheelchair difficult.
• Hills – Some islands are flat and some our mountainous. Mountainous islands include Jamaica, Grenada, Puerto Rico, and others.
• Sandy beaches without accessible paths or beach wheelchairs – Sandy beaches are a very common accessibility challenge for people vacationing in the Caribbean. In fact only a few places have truly accessible beaches like Cozumel, Aruba, and St. Thomas.
• No wheelchair accessible vans available to tourists – Dominica, Grenada, Belize and Costa Maya do not have any accessible vans.
• An entire fleet of taxis with poor accessibility – Some Caribbean islands like St. Thomas and Dominica have a taxi fleet comprising very high vehicles that are difficult to transfer into if you have mobility issues. In these and other destinations, you may have a much better experience if you book transportation in advance.
• Lack of wheelchair ramps on sidewalks – Jamaica and Dominica, are a few of the destinations where you might encounter curbs without ramps.
The biggest mistake people with disabilities can make is staying on the cruise ship and not going ashore. While the accessibility challenges can be intimidating, you’re going on this trip to see the exciting and beautiful destinations. Just because your cruise ship doesn’t offer any appealing accessible shore excursion options doesn’t mean there aren’t great accessible private shore excursions out there to enjoy your time in port.