Accessible Tourism

A compilation of opinion articles on the accessibility of tourist attractions in Singapore and beyond.

A wheelchair user’s cruise experience

by Gilbert Tan

It was a multiple stop cruise in Asian ports. Knowing the ‘Mariner of the Seas’ docks at the Marina Bay Cruise Centre was a bonus in convenience. Though I love travel, taking an aircraft is a major logistical challenge. Now with the MRT running to Marina South Pier station, transit is economically easy though there is still a 20-minute stroll to board the ship.

Cruising removes the need for sourcing accessible accommodation, a big bugbear for wheelchair users. Steps in the way, lifts that are too small, and doorways my wheelchair cannot squeeze through are not on the worry list. I must qualify that there are areas that non-ambulant persons with disabilities (PWDs) cannot go to such as the top deck. In my opinion, seating arrangements for PWDs in theatres on certain cruise ships are not catered to on Asian run cruise lines.

The food available on board is mind-boggling, hence the concern is over-eating rather than the meal hunting (which is an adventure in itself) needed on land excursions. People have often queried what are the things to do sailing out at sea. Well most of the time is spent drinking and dining and er… sleeping.

Then there are shows ranging from magic performances, samba dances, circus acts, ice skating extravaganzas, music from jazz to big bands to pop, K-pop to one of a kind ‘hypnotise the audience’ displays and imitating celebrities by an incredibly talented transvestite are the possibles in the itinerary each evening. More mundane dos are karaoke, towel origami, shopping, fruit art, swimming, rock-climbing, mini-golf, Jacuzzi soaking, sunbathing, read books, myriad games and the list continues.

Of course there are those that are payable if you got the cash such as arcade games, spas and massages, specialty restaurants, on board tours and pre planned shore trips, topless revues and the ubiquitous casino. The gaming area is where passengers really pay.

The ride to Marina Bay station was smooth. Disembarking and waiting for the allocated train to Marina South Pier station took more than ten minutes. The walkway to the terminal was mostly sheltered. Clearing customs proved to be similar to the experience at airports. Both people and luggage have to go through metal detectors (there was a quick body check for me), followed by passport screening and then one can proceed to the ship.

A slight kerb in between doorways

A slight kerb in between doorways

Having booked and paid online for the disabled accessible lodging, a cruise personnel scanned and allotted a type of credit card to each passenger as a system to pay for purchases on the sail. All along, the gangway was accessible except for a few bumps at joints in the corridor. We had hand carried bags while the heavier luggage was checked in and delivered outside our cabin door a while later. After a quick unpacking of sparing essentials, we were off to the cafeteria style eating. As usual, there was an overwhelming array of choices including the beverages.

A view of the washroom

Wheelchair-friendly toilet

The first evening on a cruise is the safety drill much like the video at the start of a plane flight. For this instance, knowing the place to head to in case of emergency is vital. Still, nonchalant folks taking the precautions lightly are commonplace. Dinner is offered in two time slots as it switches between two theatre show times for an interchangeable option.

Ports of call can be in a situation where it needs tendering. That means transferring to a boat to go on land, which takes the shore outing out of my list. The various destinations are Port Klang, Penang, Langkawi, Phuket(overnight) and back to Singapore. The only place my motorised wheelchair can get down was Penang. I could go down to the pier in Port Klang but there is not much to do there and transport to town was not available for my needs. The Penang port is a short walk to the city and has streets of shops and stalls.

At Langkawi, a very steep ramp discouraged me from taking the considerable risk to get to a sole souvenir shop at the ferry terminal. Phuket was only by tender. It may seem a waste not to be able to go on land but there are benefits. When a majority of passengers goes on shore, the whole ship seems deserted. Restaurant staff cater to your whims and other venues evoke the feeling of exclusivity accorded to celebrities and VVIPs. The swimming pools and jacuzzis are not crowded out, and leisure strolls hand in hand with your loved one is a most satisfying activity.

One has full awareness that such moments in time like this are the stuff dreams are made of. It is after all, a vacation away from the stresses of city living and materialistic pursuits of Singapore society.

TIP: This ship has room service during the day and food is allowed in the cabin, which is much-appreciated for a PWD. Breakfast in bed is a luxury as it shortens sitting periods and delays the tiredness of a long day.

Gilbert Tan is a member of the Disabled People’s Association. He is a writer and an artist who actively participates in community work. His works can be found on his website: He has recently published a book called, ‘Hospitales: theatre of another kind’ that recounts his 11 month-long hospital stay. 

S.E.A. Aquarium: Accessibility For Persons with Disabilities

By Jorain Ng

On 23 January 2015, my organisation – the Disabled People’s Association (DPA) – paid a visit to S.E.A. Aquarium at Resorts World Sentosa.

As with all other events, this outing was organised for our members, including our institutional members. But this outing was especially significant because it marked DPA’s first collaboration with the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ). ANZ had kindly sponsored the tickets and also volunteered manpower on the day. The turnout was overwhelming, with a total of 135 participants from ANZ, Down Syndrome Association, Singapore Association for the Deaf and DPA.

Apart from giving our members an opportunity to have fun and socialise, the purpose of this visit was also to review the accessibility of the attraction. Touted to be the world’s largest aquarium, with streams of tourists from around the world, we felt it necessary that the attraction is accessible for all. And so, at the end of our visit, we conducted an informal feedback session on our members’ experiences.

This blog post records our findings and recommendations for improvements.

Overall Experience

Glass tube at the aquarium

Walking through the glass tube. Photo credit: Raymond Lee.

Everyone had a great time exploring the marine world. The sights were simply spectacular and other-worldly!

Walking through the glass tube, we were enchanted by the many fishes, of different colours, sizes and species, swimming around us. Moving deeper into the aquarium, we also saw bottenose dolphins, hammerhead sharks, mantra rays and many other animals. And let’s not forget about the luminous jellyfish glowing aquariums! Many of us were captivated by the different species of jellyfish pursing through the water. We were also mesmerised by the Open Ocean Tank or Ocean Dome. The large tank houses glittering schools of fishes, sharks, manta rays and many others, giving viewers a glimpse into marine life.

There is no doubt that everyone at DPA, and I believe other members from ANZ, DSA and SADeaf as well, thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

But the aquarium could be made more enjoyable for persons with disabilities. The following sections detail our feedback and suggestions to improve the accessibility of S.E.A. Aquarium.

Getting to S.E.A. Aquarium

DPA members did not face any difficulty getting to the aquarium. Some used specialised transport like a wheelchair-accessible taxi or bus, while others travelled on the MRT and bus to get to the attraction.

But finding the main entrance was not easy because the Entrance signboard is small and hard to spot, especially for persons with low vision.

DPA suggests adding footprint markers on the ground to lead visitors to the aquarium. It would also be helpful to have an Information / Visitors Support Desk where visitors can ask for directions to the aquarium, the lifts and wheelchair accessible toilets. Alternatively, the management could deploy trained staff at different locations inside and outside at the entrance of the aquarium to direct visitors.

Inside the Aquarium

The aquarium was a little too dark for comfort. Persons with low vision may face difficulty getting around the aquarium. Deep sea creatures may be sensitive to light, so a possible solution to this safely hazard is to add sidelights in poorly lit areas and have luminous graphical or text signs on the ground to guide visitors. This would not only aid persons with low vision, but other persons without disabilities as well.

There is also the issue of sudden steep slopes along the pathways. Manual wheelchair users might find it hard to climb the steep slopes. DPA suggests replacing the steep slopes with gentler ones. Again, this change would benefit not just wheelchair users, but also the elderly, children, and visitors with baby strollers.

Due to the throngs of visitors flocking to the front of every aquarium and exhibit, wheelchair users were not able to see much or had to wait for the visitors to leave.

To stem such inconsiderate behaviour, the management of the aquarium could deploy staff members at strategic locations to ensure that visitors give way to wheelchair users. This way, everyone gets a chance to see the sea creatures, not someone else’s back or head.

Wheelchair users also faced difficulty reading the information plaques of the various sea creatures. The plaques were either positioned too low or too high (i.e. above or below their eye level). The management could consider repositioning the various signages / information at a comfortable eye-level for wheelchair users.

As a visual spectacular that relies heavily on sight, it is hard to imagine how persons with visual impairment can enjoy the aquarium. Nothing is designed in a way that can help them enjoy the marine world. There are no tactile ground surface indicators to help them navigate around the aquarium independently, nor are there any braille text describing the different sea creatures.

Life-size replica at River Safari.

Life-size replica of snapping turtle at River Safari.

To help improve the experience of persons with visual impairment, the management could add the aforementioned features to their aquarium. The management could also follow the footsteps of River Safari. River Safari helps persons with visual impairment visualise the animals by providing life-size replicas for them to touch and feel. Alternatively, the aquarium could develop an app (using GPS technology) to be used as a map/guide to give audio information about the exhibits/sea creatures.

Others (lifts, toilets & emergency protocol)

It was not easy to find the lifts as there were no lift signs. This caused great inconvenience to wheelchair users and their caregivers. The management could add lift signs around the aquarium or provide maps indicating the locations of lifts and toilets. Once again, this would benefit everyone – the elderly, children and adults – not just wheelchair users.

The aquarium has wheelchair accessible toilets. But like any other toilets in Singapore, there are a few inconsiderate persons without disabilities using them – a sure sign that Singapore needs more public education campaigns.

Finally, the aquarium lacks information on how persons with disabilities can escape the aquarium in the event of an emergency. Understandably, such emergency information are rarely provided at tourist attractions, but it is good practice to start doing so. The information can be posted at their website or at other notable areas of the attraction.


Despite these accessibility issues, all members happily chimed that they would recommend the visit to other persons with disabilities. DPA would love to visit the aquarium again, and extends our sincere gratitude to ANZ, SADeaf, DSA and S.E.A. Aquarium management.

So far, DPA has visited the Singapore Zoo, River Safari, Jurong Bird Park and now S.E.A. Aquarium. Are there other places you think DPA should visit and provide a review on its accessibility? Let me know in the comments below!

Cruising Around M’sia’s Ports (Dec 2014)

By Jorain Ng

In early December 2014, I went on a cruise holiday.

Since it was my first experience on a cruise and, to the best of my knowledge, there are no reviews on the physical accessibility of the ship, I’m taking this opportunity to share my thoughts.

Embarking & Disembarking the Ship

Boarding and leaving the ship was smooth and easy. The pathway connecting the ship to the port is wide enough for wheelchair users.

But there are no tactile surface ground indicators to guide people with visual impairments.

Physical Accessibility around the Ship

Pathway leading to cabin rooms

Corridor along cabin rooms

There are four lifts that stop at every deck. The lifts operate on touch-sensitive buttons.

But the lift buttons do not have braille indicating the floor levels.

Getting around the ship is a cumbersome process. Getting to the front and back end of the ship requires one to cut across some facilities like the restaurants, bars, lounges and casinos.

Thankfully, the main pathways connecting these facilities are wide and generally barrier-free, with gentle slopes at certain facilities.

The corridors along cabin rooms are tight and are usually cluttered with obstructions like cleaning carts.

Physical accessibility for people with visual impairment is dismal. There are no braille plates indicating the facilities available nor are there any tactile surface ground indicators to help people with visual impairments navigate around the ship.

Physical Accessibility of Ship Facilities

Sadly, I did not manage to visit all the facilities so I cannot say with certainty that all of them are wheelchair friendly.

The ones I did visit – the restaurants, lounges, duty-free shop, etc. – have main pathways that are generally barrier-free. I say “generally” because at some of these places, there are shallow steps leading to deeper portions of the ship.

The main pathways in these facilities are also wide enough for a wheelchair user to travel, but oftentimes there are physical obstacles like food trays stacked on top of tables.

Cabin Rooms

image3 image4

I stayed at a standard cabin room. The room is rather small and squeezy.

The toilet is even smaller, and is not wheelchair friendly either.

Upon research, I found that only four cabins are wheelchair accessible.

Emergency Situations

Crew teaching us how to wear a life jacket.

A crew teaching us how to wear a life jacket.

Before we sailed off, safety and evacuation demonstrations were performed to inform passengers how to react in an event of an emergency like a fire outbreak. A staff described the procedures via the loudspeaker, but there were no sign language interpreters.

The crew also did not explain how wheelchair users can escape from the ship in the event of a fire when all lifts stop operation.

Shore Excursions 

One of the activities available on this cruise was shore excursions.

The ship stopped at two ports – Penang Island and Port Klang – for one day each for passengers to disembark, have fun at the place for a few hours, and then return to the ship. So all excursions were jam packed with all kinds of activities at different costs. Passengers who are interested can choose their preferred excursion from a list, go free-and-easy or remain at the ship.

The crew made sure to indicate the wheelchair accessibility of all tour packages.

Overall verdict

Taken together, the ship is fairly inaccessible for wheelchair users and people with visual disability traveling independently. This is not surprising because the cruise ship I traveled on was Superstar Gemini – one of the older ships in the Star Cruises line.

Wheelchair users and people with sensory disabilities might be better off sailing with the Royal Caribbean. I have never sailed with this ship, but a page on their web interface indicates that they cater to passengers with different kinds of disability such as those with hearing disability, mobility disability, service animals, and visual disability.

Here is the link to the page:

For persons with disabilities interested in taking a cruise holiday, and wish to ascertain the accessibility of the ship before booking, here are a few questions to ask your travel agents and the cruise line:

1) Does the ship provide special accommodations for passengers with disabilities? (e.g. wheelchair-accessible rooms with roll-in showers, braille elevator buttons, sign language interpreting services etc.)

2) Does the ship allow service animals on board?

3) Are the routes in the ship’s facilities barrier-free? (e.g. Are there steps along the pathways?)

4) Are crew members properly trained on serving passengers with disabilities?

5) Are there evacuation procedures that take into account passengers with mobility and sensory disabilities?

Have you ever taken a cruise? Which cruise line was it? And was it accessible for people with disabilities? Let me know in the comments below!

Helping disabled travellers is a basic responsibility

Straits Times Forum, 22 September 2014 (print edition)

CHANGI Airport has a place in most travellers’ hearts because of its excellent service and facilities.

Yet after reading Dr Ho Ting Fei’s letter (“Airport wheelchair rules leave much to be desired“; last Wednesday), the Disabled People’s Association (DPA) would like to highlight that offering assistance to those with special needs should be viewed as fulfilling a basic responsibility and not as an extended service.

Tourists with special needs are first and foremost customers and should be given the same level of service as any other paying member of the public. Indeed, sometimes these passengers pay more than other travellers to fly.

Changi Airport’s website has information about the special needs services it provides, which include complimentary access to wheelchairs on a first-come, first-served basis. Passengers are also informed that they can request a wheelchair and a minder directly from the airlines.

Yet, such policies do not always filter down to the service providers on the ground. For a person with a disability, getting about is not always easy and anything that airport staff can do to alleviate the concerns of passengers and their friends and family would be a great help.

It is important that the airport management ensure that all staff are properly trained to accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities and are aware of the relevant policies to avoid confusion and anxiety.

The DPA encourages Changi Airport to expand its disability services, especially in the light of Singapore ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

An example of best practice can be found in South Korea, where airports provide comprehensive services for visitors with disabilities. These services include priority check-in, assistance with check-in and with filling out documents, electric carts for passengers with mobility difficulties and in-flight assistance.

Another good example of best practice can be seen at Pittsburgh International Airport, in the United States, where it has volunteer airport ambassadors who offer friendly assistance to visitors, including special needs support.

Although every country is unique, it is good practice to look at adapting tried and tested policies to the local context. Changi Airport management should look at properly implementing existing policies as well as enhancing them to ensure that Changi is as great an experience for travellers without disabilities as it is for those with them.

Pottokkaren Kochuvareed Asha
Advocacy Consultant
Disabled People’s Association

Changi Airport Group has responded here.

Snaps from Beijing, Sydney & a bit of Britannia (Part 2)

by Alvan Yap

For the first of this two-part series, click here.

Buying into the 中国梦 (China Dream)!
China is the world’s most populous country and the world’s second biggest economy. But it would probably not strike anyone as being a role model for disability rights because of its less-than-stellar record on human rights issues.

You’ll be surprised though.

As a first-time visitor to my ‘motherland’, I certainly was.

In fact, China can be more modern, high-tech, advanced and even cleaner than.. Singapore. Well, at least some parts of Beijing and Shanghai are. (But not the air, no. On the increasingly infrequent clear days, the winter skies are crisp pastels. On other days, oh no!)

Wheelchairs overhead!
You don’t often see wheelchair users on overhead bridges, unless these are linked to lifts – and there’re hardly any such here. In fact, I’ve never seen a wheelchair on an overhead bridge before.

Imagine my astonishment when I bumped into this wheelchair-accessible overhead bridge in Beijing. The following photos tell the story – it’s wide and gently sloped enough for wheelchair users to use. (I think. It does look a bit steep at the upper reaches.)

I ascended the bridge, marvelled at the width of it, and was thinking to hang around to see if a wheelchair user came along, so that I can say finally I spot a rare phenomenon – a wheelchair on a bridge. But the wind and chill and my numbed extremities – the high for the day was 3 or 4 degrees – made me change my mind in a hurry.

Very wwwwide opening and ggggentle slope for wheelchairs.

Very wwwwide opening and ggggentle slope for wheelchairs.

Wheelchair accessible overhead bridge 2

This bridge leads across a busy 4 or 6-lane road below.

Signs of the (modern) times

China boasts some hilariously horrible English-language signs and notices, the result of inept and overly literal translation. Trust me – I’ve seen plenty, enough to laugh at and last for a lifetime.

Beijing’s English signs for accessible facilities, though, are a different story. “Barrier free” and “Accessible” are the appropriate words used, as derived from the Chinese phrase 无障碍 – literally, “no obstacle”.

(Unlike, unfortunately, the antiquated and inappropriate “Handicapped” signs you still see at certain MRT stations in Singapore. Though these are referring to toilets instead of ramps and slopes, what’s wrong with the word “accessible”? Because there’s everything wrong with “handicapped”.)

I spotted this at the Temple of Heaven (eh, I think).

I spotted this at the Temple of Heaven (eh, I think).


Wheelchair accessible sign for ramp at the National Library of China in Beijing.

Tactile everywhere (kinda)

According to Wikipedia, China boasts – and this time, I use this word in its positive sense – the world’s second largest volume (after Japan) of tactile paving on its streets and roads.

The first time I noticed the yellow strips of bumps and raised lines on the ground, I thought they looked familiar. Then it came to me – I have seen these before back home, at the MRT stations and on the ground at HDB void decks near my home.

But the extent of tactile paving in Beijing astounds me. Every major pavement has it, as well as lots of minor paths too. Not being blind, I can’t say for sure how well implemented the paving is over there, but it certainly caught my eye.

Photo of a man walking in middle of pavement. On his left is a strip of tactile paving.

From Wudaokuo subway station to Tsinghua University dorms, a distance of about 2 or 3km, there is tactile paving all the way along the pavement.

“Love is blind”

Bethel China is a VWO which runs foster care programmes for blind orphans.

I’m very happy to be able to help out at one of its outings during my Beijing stay. A friend of mine had arranged for a group of Bethel children to attend a New Year concert at his school – the famed Tsinghua University. Some of the children were also scheduled to perform a song with the Tsinghua choir.

Meeting the blind kids and their chaperones at the entrance of the university, we bussed them in, brought them to a function room for a briefing and rehearsal and then to a cafe for some food. All of them have white canes which they are adept in using – unfurling the canes with a swish of the wrist (the canes are the foldable types), and then tapping/rolling them around (some of the canes have small rollers at the end) as they navigate the path ahead.

Here’s a photo of their performance.

The ten children in the front row were guided up and down the stage by a minder each. (They had left their white canes on their seats.)

The children in the front row were guided up and down the stage by a minder each. (They had left their white canes on their seats.)

Over in the United Kingdom.. 

"Less able to stand" is a nice touch.

“Less able to stand” is a nice touch.

I hope you have enjoyed this series and the stories. You, too, can contribute to future posts by sending in the sights and signs you see of accessibility facilities overseas. Just email me!

Snaps from Beijing, Sydney & a bit of Britannia (Part 1)

by Alvan Yap

At first, I wanted to title this post “Doing the Touristy Thingies in Beijing and Sydney”, but most readers would have reacted like I would: “Another tedious happy-snappy blog post with an endless scroll of holiday selfies? Lemmeoutofhere!”

Nevertheless, I confess I could barely restrain myself from doing exactly that. (Who doesn’t want to look at my pretty pictures?) But you’ll be glad to know I found the willpower to.

On overseas trips late last year, I spotted some unusual, interesting or noteworthy accessible facilities which I’m glad to share with you. DPA President Nicholas Aw also contributed one, all the way from Britain.

Here comes the photos and the commentary.

Going Places Down Under!
We have certain notions of Australia. Or at least I have. The people there are supposed to be the warm and friendly and easygoing and helpful sort who say things like “G’day, mate!” to all and sundry. And the stereotypes, this time, are largely true. (Maybe I’ll edge a bit on the ‘easygoing’ part – my salted eggs were confiscated at the Sydney airport customs.)

But I’m sure it won’t be a surprise to anyone if I say Australia is some way ahead of Singapore when it comes to disability rights and accessibility. Examples abound.

Besides the obvious and ‘standard’ ramps and lifts, let’s look at some which are different from (better than?) Singapore’s, or which are not available here.

ET at the movies
First up, there’s this ET-like contraption you can request for at the cineplex. It consists of a roundish base which is screwed into the cup holder and a flexible neck ending in a rectangular screen. Wirelessly synced to the screen are the subtitles/captions of the movie – and you guessed it, this is for deaf and hard-of-hearing movie goers. Find out more about CaptiView here.

A group of four people holding the CaptiView device at the cineplex

My friends and I with the CaptiView devices. (One of them is not deaf. Guess who?)

Fold up, give way
Like our buses – well, most of them – Sydney buses are wheelchair friendly. The design is quite nifty though. When there is no wheelchair on board, the space is taken up by seats which can be folded down.

Photo of two bus seats which can be folded up to accommodate a wheelchair. One is not folded and one is partially folded.

These bus seats can be folded up to accommodate a wheelchair.

Wide open to all
The wider fare gates at the subway stations are meant for.. deep breath.. wheelchair users, people with walking sticks/canes, guide dogs, those lugging bulky lugguage, families with young kids, prams/strollers, pregnant women and bicycles. (Eh, I assume it means fold-up bikes.)

How do we know? The sticker says so!

As in the text

A sticker for details, or should that be stickler?

Loops here and there
Induction loops which work with hearing aids to deliver speech/sounds directly to the hearing aids (instead of through the air) can be found at the subway stations and trains, and in other public places. (While in Singapore, I’ve never come across any.)

A row of signs and notices, one of which indicates availability of loop system for hearing aid users on a wall panel

That, at the extreme left, is the universal symbol for those with deafness or hearing loss. The “T” indicates T-coil loop system is available.

Braille for emergency intercom
Braille information is located right above an intercom for emergency calls.

Photos shows Braille sign above an emergency intercom system

Especially for the blind. The Braille, that is, not the intercom (which is for everyone)

Meeting the luminous Dawn
And of course, last but not least, I got to meet Ms Dawn-Joy Leong in Sydney. Dawn, a Singaporean who is doing her PhD in a university there, has autism and a service dog Lucy – the very first one in the university. She is also an artist and a disability advocate. You can read more about her here.

Photo of five people standing in front of a cafe, including Dawn the lady who is in the centre

A pleasure to meet Dawn (in bright pink) and her service dog, Lucy (not in photo)

Read Part 2 “Buying into the 中国梦 (China Dream)” here!

One Week on The Lord Nelson

by Alvan Yap

All rigged up on board the Lord Nelson (photo by DPA)

All rigged up on board the Lord Nelson (photo by Alvan/DPA)

Twelve Singaporeans, including people with disabilities and their non-disabled friends and family, embarked on an unique 7-day-6-night adventure at sea from 29 May to 3 June 2013. (Find out more about the Lord Nelson’s mission here.)

A Chat With Crew Member Shi Yi
Among them was Ong Shi Yi, one of the Singaporean crew members on the Lord Nelson, who has kindly granted DPA an interview.

Shi Yi has severe-profound hearing loss in both ears. She is currently an Executive (Workplace Diversity Management) with the Singapore National Employers Federation.

In the interview, Shi Yi will tell us more about her adventure on “Nelly” (the nickname of the Lord Nelson) on which she sailed to Tioman Island, what it was like in a typical day of a sailor, how the Lord Nelson is barrier-free, and her post-voyage understanding and thoughts of what truly inclusive means and what it involves.

All Hands On Deck
For Shi Yi and the others with disabilities who signed up for the voyage, they were there not as passengers on a cruise, but as full-fledged, working crew members. Everyone was assigned duties accordingly to their abilities and expected to do their part on par with the permanent crew.

Shi Yi says, “It was definitely an eye opener to see both disabled and non-disabled crew working together on board. No one ever looked at us, the disabled crew, with a discriminatory eye. It was like a home away from home; everyone had to do their part to sail the ship.”

Duties Galore!
“We all had to do mess duty (in the kitchen such as chopping food, washing dishes, serving food, setting the table, refilling water dispensers, etc), happy hour duty (which means cleaning of toilets, walls, floor, etc – practically the entire ship) and watch duty (taking up positions at the top deck to  watch out for oncoming vessels that might get in the way of Nelly, and informing the Captain or First Mate who would then recalculate the speed course and steer the ship away from the obstacles).”

Joseph, a blind crew member, hard at work in the kitchen (photo by Lord Nelson crew)

Joseph, a blind crew member, hard at work in the kitchen (photo by crew)

“Each of us had to take turns at the ship’s steering wheel too, taking instructions from the Captain or First Mate who would tell us the speed we need to set Nelly by. It is a round-the-clock, 24-hour daily task, and we all had to work shifts ranging from two to four hours, with each watch group headed by a watch leader.”

“And of course, everyone had to help pull the sails up the mast to catch the wind whenever it started blowing in our favour.”

“No one is ever excluded from duties and activities. This gives us the feeling of being independent and that we all can contribute regardless of our disabilities.”

The Novice And The Novel
“Before I stepped on board Nelly, I had totally no sailing experience at all. It was awesome to be able to learn and try out basic square-rigging sailing techniques, and steering the wheel, and pulling the mast to roll and unroll the sail whenever there are winds.”

“Pulling the rope to bring the sails up the mast is very challenging, and a good way to build up your arm muscles. We fall into a rhythm of ‘2, 6, heave! 2, 6, heave!’ and ‘let go!’. The work of the pulling is done by two sections: the first section consists of those pulling down the rope, and the second section is the horizontal-wise pulling by as many people as possible to tighten the rope before it is hooked and secured.”

“It was definitely tough work, working under the sun and (even heavy rain for a few hours) all day, but it felt good sailing to Tioman Island instead of flying over. It was a novel way to get there too! I am the type who prefers hard work to reach my destination; it gives me a sense of achievement.

“Once, there were strong winds, and for the first time, I saw Nelly in full mast, with all her sails unfurled. It lasted for a while before we had to roll up the sails when the wind stopped. However, that brief moment was spectacular. Nelly really is a beauty in full mast.”

Nelly not at full mast. (photo courtesy of Shi Yi)

Nelly not at full mast. (photo courtesy of Shi Yi)

Channeling The Spirit Of ‘Life Of Pi’
“I love the feeling of freedom and independence out on the open sea, where I get to enjoy the fresh air in the morning, watch dolphins playing from afar, gaze at gorgeous sunrises and sunsets and a dazzling galaxy of stars at night. These are sights I won’t ever see in Singapore.”

“And oh, I grew to love the feeling of ceaseless rocking of the ship – at times gentle, at times very choppy to the extent that two female Singaporean crew got slightly giddy and nauseous (though I wasn’t affected). But choppy or not, it had a tranquilising effect on me. We swayed as we walked on the deck, swayed as we showered, swayed as we go up and down stairs, swayed as we slept! When I disembarked from VivoCity port at the end of the voyage, I kept getting the feeling the ground beneath me was swaying still.”

“Last but not least, I spotted a huge shark! What a thrill!”

Of Accents And Communication
It was not all smooth sailing of course (and pardon the pun). Nothing ever is.

“The biggest challenge,” Shi Yi says, “was actually understanding the UK crew. British accents are harder to understand for me, let alone lip reading. I am more used to Asian and American accents. There was no written text flashing each time there was an announcement onboard, so I had to try and understand – by straining to hear and lipread at the same time – my buddy (who is an UK citizen).”

“It was not easy, but the other UK crew also helped interpret the announcements for me. I really appreciate their patience in translating for me and preventing any miscommunication.”

Jovin being hoisted up to the mast.

Jovin using his own muscle power to pull himself up the mast. (photo by Shi Yi)

No Barriers, Please. We’re On Nelly.
Shi Yi elaborates on how Nelly is barrier-free both in terms of both mindsets and facilities. Or, as we love to say in Singapore, in both heartware and hardware. Let Shi Yi play tour guide to the special facilities for people with disabilities on the Lord Nelson.

“Every part of the ship is accessible and barrier-free except the kitchen storage area where all food is stocked – there are only stairs to it. But otherwise, all parts of the upper deck and watch deck are totally accessible, with wheelchair lifts and rope-and-pulley systems for wheelchair users and those with other types of mobility disabilities.”

“There is also a raised wooden strip along the middle of the ship floor (upper deck) and string ‘railings’ for the blind to navigate by.” (This is similar to the raised tactile surface on MRT platforms.)

“We sleep in cabins with double-decker bunks. Wheelchair users get the bottom bunk and also the use of the bigger-sized deluxe cabins, so that they have space for their wheelchairs. Others, like me, usually get the upper bunk, using ropes on either sides to heave ourselves up. Toilets and showers are, of course, fully accessible.”

“There is a system of pulleys and ropes for wheelchair users on Nelly. We have separate pulleys specifically for hoisting wheelchairs up to second platform of the mast – just to let them admire the view from up high; this is also how everyone, including the wheelchair using crew, is able to get up to the mast or up on the mast platform for a bird’s eye view. The pulleys and ropes are also used to hoist wheelchair users or mobility-impaired crew from Nelly to the dinghy to reach land at places where the ship can’t drop anchor beside the jetty due to shallow waters.”

Jim, a visually-impaired crew, climbs up to the mast alongside a sighted crew mate. (photo by Lord Nelson crew)

Jim, a visually-impaired crew, climbs up to the mast alongside a sighted crew mate. (photo by crew)

“As for the blind crew, they simply climb up the netting and ladders, secured by an extra rope to their climbing gear, and guided by a sighted crew who climbs alongside them and give verbal instructions.”

“For the deaf who use hearing aids, there is a built-in induction loop on the ship. But because induction loops are rare in Singapore, I haven’t tried it and my hearing aids are not set to do so. Though I couldn’t understand announcements over the loudspeaker, the fire alarm was so loud that I had no problem hearing it.”

“For the crew who are visually impaired, they use the audio compass as well as verbal instructions to help with steering. To get around the ship, they depend on their senses of touch and hearing, and sheer memory power – they memorise the entire layout of the various sections of Nelly.”

“One interesting device is the mini lift for moving trays of food and dishes from the kitchen to the upper deck, instead of having the crew manually carrying many dishes up and down the stairs. This makes it easier for wheelchair-using and blind crew to serve meals, thus enabling them to do mess duty. It even has an audio alert for the blind to know the lift has reached the deck.”

“Where necessary, we use a buddy system where a disabled crew is paired with a non-disabled one, or even disabled-disabled pairings, such that everyone can help accommodate one another’s disabilities, and no one is left out, or left behind. There is no concept of ‘cannot do’ among the crew, only the focus on what we can do, and implementing measures to overcome what we physically cannot do.”

On Tioman Island. Because of the road conditions, it was difficult for wheelchair users to wheel themselves along, so they were paired up with a partner to help them along. (photo by Lord Nelson crew)

On Tioman Island. Because of the road conditions, it was difficult for wheelchair users to wheel themselves along, so they were paired up with a partner to help them along. (photo by Shi Yi)

Disabled Sailors? Keep Calm And Carry On.
Here, Shi Yi reflects on her experience and how it has changed her perception and outlook on life in general and her notion of ‘disability’.

“It has been an unforgettable experience for me. Everyone on board Nelly were one big family, sharing and bantering and chattering freely. At sea, our team spirit and camaraderie was really one of a kind; we regard one another as fellow human beings first and foremost. We did not let notions of disability and nationality get in our way, quite a stark contrast how things can be back on land in Singapore.”

“To Nelly (as a crew mate, KaLai Lao, puts it and which I totally agree with): ‘A ship is safe in a harbour, but that is not what ships are built for.’ So, continue to sail to wherever the tides and winds take you, and continue to spread the message of inclusion and overcoming disability all over the world!”

“I am deeply grateful to London Offshore Consultants (LOC) and (Singapore LOC director) Nicholas White for sponsoring me and giving me an adventure of a lifetime. Otherwise, I would never have realised that it is possible for me to work on a tall ship! I am also thankful for a chance to work with other disabled crew, to learn about and understand their disabilities better. At the same time, I am happy to be able to interact with crew from all over the world.”

“I hope that more companies will follow in LOC’s footsteps and support and give chances to people with disabilities. I also wish that society at large will accept those with disabilities and realise that being disabled doesn’t mean that you are limited in your ability to work.”

“Lord Nelson is a very meaningful project. Sailing the Lord Nelson is a wonderful example of inclusion, and of how everyone can come and work together to tackle a difficult challenge successfully, regardless of one’s disability.”

And in Shi Yi’s parting words is a rallying cry: “I wish to tell all people with disabilities: Let’s aim high and seek to go far. The sea is our oyster and the sky is our limit!”

At the homecoming ceremony hosted by LOC (photo by DPA)

At the homecoming ceremony hosted by LOC (photo by Alvan/DPA)


DPA would like to thank Shi Yi for sharing her time, thoughts and photos so generously. May favourable winds always be at her back and may she continue to sail on smoothly through the travails of life! We also appreciate the use of the crew’s photos – thank you.