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: http://www.gilberttan.com. He has recently published a book called, ‘Hospitales: theatre of another kind’ that recounts his 11 month-long hospital stay. 

Introduction to the Deafblind

by Jan Evans

“The best thing is that I’m alive”

So said Satoshi Fukushima in a fascinating and moving 28 minute video shown at SADeaf’s excellent “Introduction to the Deafblind” Workshop on Saturday, 13 June 2015.  Satoshi lost his hearing at 9 yrs old and his sight at 18 yrs.  At that latter point in his life, he admits he “hit rock bottom” then came to realise that there was purpose in his hardship and suffering and “climbed out of the pit”. Now a leading advocate of the Deafblind in Japan, Dr Fukushima is currently Professor at Tokyo University Research Centre for Advanced Science and Technology. His research specialities include social and psychological aspects of deafblind people.

It almost goes without saying that I was introduced to a new world last Saturday. The workshop was run by Lisa Loh, an energetic 20-something who is deaf and has Retinitis Pigmentosa: She is able to see less and less in her peripheral vision and knows that in time the rest of her sight will follow. Lisa explained the different causes and levels of deafblindness and the different types of communication. The Deafblind communicate through touch (Braille, Tactile Signing or Finger Braille).  I was awestruck to hear that Satoshi’s mother, Reiko, developed Finger Braille “because there was no Braille typewriter in the kitchen” and amused to hear her casual aside to him “You could have been more enthusiastic”!

The workshop included a simulation of deafblindness.  We paired off, one person being the deafblind person (donning a triple layered eyemask and very thick headphones/ear defenders), the other was the Interpreter Guide (IG – who communicates with and leads the deafblind person). Then we swapped roles. One guided route took us up and down stairways and along winding corridors; the other had us sampling (by touch) various objects.  Your comfort level very much depended on the trust you had in your IG. The experience was telling and I am sure you can imagine the feelings of isolation and helplessness. The role of IG proved more demanding especially when I was teamed up with someone who was deaf/hard of hearing where any meaningful communication was by fingerspelling Roman letters on the palm (note to self – it doesn’t work sideways) or tactile sign writing (no – I don’t know how to do that properly either). I thank my deaf/HOH partners for their grace and forbearance – and good humour.

Satoshi_Fukushima2I was interested to learn that Dr Fukushima has spearheaded quite an influential deafblind movement in Japan. Lisa has met a number of deafblind IGs there: 50% of them had experience as Sign Language Interpreters, just less than 50% as Blind Guides and the remaining small percentage had no experience at all. Most IGs in Japan are NOT related to the deaf blind person which facilitates more independence.

So what of Singapore?

We have all heard stories about well-intentioned passers-by “helping” those who are blind/visually impaired across the street …when they didn’t want to go!  However this situation would not occur with a deafblind person.  It is inevitable that there will be an accompanying IG.

There are about 13 Deafblind people known to Lisa: 7 are registered with SADeaf/SAVH.  There are probably more.  In Japan, an estimated 22,000 people are both deaf and blind.

IGs for the Deafblind in Singapore tend to be family members but they need a rest occasionally.  There may be formal provision for Befrienders to take deafblind people to a hospital appointment or church service but the Deafblind still have difficulty accessing leisure activities.

To learn more about SADeaf’s deafblind workshops please go to SADeaf’s website at http://sadeaf.org.sg/ – I understand Lisa will be conducting a 3rd “Introduction to  the Deafblind” workshop at the end of this year which, no doubt, SADeaf will advertise nearer the time. I commend it.

Jan Evans is a volunteer at Disabled People’s Association, Singapore.