DOES THE AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT apply to foreign-flag cruise ships that operate in American waters? That issue went before the U.S. Supreme Court in March in Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd., and the outcome could have broad implications for the cruise industry. The Spector case stems from a class action lawsuit filed in 2000 by Douglas Spector and a group of Norwegian Cruise Line passengers who claim discrimination during their cruises because of their disabilities.

“The industry in general does a good job [on accessibility],” says Laurel Van Horn, a specialist on accessible travel and tourism and a program consultant with the Open Doors Organization in Chicago. “In many cases, cruise ships are doing a better job than hotels.” However, accessibility for passengers with disabilities has not been implemented consistently in all cruise fleets, says Van Horn. That consistency, “and the ability to hold cruise lines liable in case something goes wrong,” is important to the disabled community, she says.

J. Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, headquartered in Arlington, Va., says that the industry as a whole has ships that were built since the passage of the ADA in the early 1990s, and that for the most part these ships have been constructed with the needs of disabled passengers in mind.

The problem with extending the ADA to foreign-flag cruise ships, Crye says, is that implementing ADA's standards throughout the cruise industry will create some serious practical issues for an international industry. And, if structural changes become necessary as a result of the ADA being extended, some could have “significant cost implications,” he adds.

What effect would an extension of ADA to foreign flag ships have on meeting planners? “The consistency [of accessibility] will help them,” Van Horn says. “It should make it easier for them to find the accommodations they need, and obviously they will have a wider choice.”