Planning a holiday is pretty daunting if you have any sort of disability. The UK is one of the most disability-friendly places on Earth, and venturing outside our borders can lead to all sorts of problems. Ancient European cities have show-stopping staircases and narrow alleyways to navigate, South America is just too hilly and there are few provisions for the less-mobile person in Africa and most of Asia. There are cultural difficulties as well as the physical ones - the UK is very tolerant of disabilities and, although there are some common misconceptions about mental illness in particular, we're a lot better at interacting with disabled or less-mobile people than our continental counterparts.
So how can a disabled person travel without restriction? Somewhere with helpful staff, flat walkways, plenty of lifts and that essential holiday feeling?
Cruises tick all the boxes. Boats consist of several flat decks connected by dozens of lifts and elevators. The ratio of crewmen to passengers on a cruise ship can be 2:1. This means that there are enough staff on board to help you on your journey and look after you if any part of your holiday goes wrong. The crew of a cruise ship are very well trained (like the porters in five-star London hotels) so even if you have a serious mobility problem, they'll be able to take you where you want to go at any time of the day or night.
This is just the bog standard set of reasons why cruises are good for people with disabilities. But every cruise ship that gets built has its own quirks and differences, so it is worth doing a bit of foreplanning before making any concrete decisions. On the whole, however, it boils down to common sense and there are some good rules of thumb which can help you get the best out of your trip.
Arrange your cruise only through accredited travel agents. Ideally, look for travel agents who are used to organising trips for disabled passengers. That way, they'll know what questions to ask you about your disability and they'll have valuable knowledge about the ports and excursions which are best suited to your particular disability.
Don't be shy and always tell the truth about your disability. Nobody is going to judge you for it and it's better that you're honest about how many flights of stairs you can climb or how quickly you get out of breath. Explain your needs in depth - will the infirmary need a defibrillator, for example?
There are hundreds of cruise ships in the world, so pick the newest ones with the best facilities. Although cruise ships tend to be very wheelchair friendly, it's worth ringing in advance to make sure there are enough grab-handles in the bathroom, for example, or whether there's a particular easy-access table in the restaurant.
Make sure your health insurance is as comprehensive as possible. If you fall ill and need to be air-lifted from the ship or flown from a foreign port back to Blighty, then you may be liable for the bill. Make sure your insurance has adequate cover. An extra five quid at the start of the holiday could save you tens of thousands if something goes wrong on the other side of the world.
As soon as you board the ship, make yourself known to the ship's doctor and pinpoint the infirmary. Make sure you know your way around the vessel. In an emergency, you will be required to put on a lifejacket and head to a muster point. Normally there will be an introduction in the ship's theatre and a brief life jacket demonstration, but if your life jacket is more complicated then there will be staff on hand to explain precisely how it - and an evacuation - works in the heat of the moment.
Inspect your cabin and ensure it meets your expectations. If there are obstacles then ask a steward to remove them or alter them. Small details can make your cruise more comfortable and even help avoid injury. If any part of your room is inaccessible due to steps, the stewards will probably be able to fit a temporary ramp.
Familiarise yourself with the emergency protocol. It's a bit more complicated than the fire escape map in a hotel. If you are hard of hearing, let this be known to the staff. They'll come to your cabin and repeat any announcements made on the ship's tannoy.
Get accustomed to the movement of the ship as soon as you can. If you're travelling over rough seas (the Bay of Biscay, for example) you should probably remain in your room if you find movement difficult. Ask the staff what the sea is likely to be like - they'll have access to accurate weather forecasts.
Ask the staff about excursions. Some will be fine, others won't be possible. Some ports aren't big enough for large cruise ships, so will only be accessed by small tenders. Ask what the wheelchair provisions are for these small ancillary craft.
Enjoy your holiday. Everybody is there to make sure you have a good time. It's their job and it's what they're trained to do. Nothing is too difficult for them - if you have even the slightest whim, don't be afraid to ask.