After 15 years, ship disability guidelines ready for release

Since 1998, the U.S. Access Board, an independent federal agency that develops criteria to ensure vehicles and equipment are accessible for people with disabilities, has been working on the proposal. It has issued two sets of draft guidelines and created two advisory committees, but submitted the proposal for a final review with the White House only last December.

The passenger ship industry says the hold-up isn't their fault.

"The delay has not been because of the industry or the regulated community resisting the rule," said Ed Welch, legislative director of the Passenger Vessel Association, which represents the American ferry, dinner and sightseeing cruise industries. "The regulated community has not been saying 'hold off on the rule' or 'block the rule' or anything like that. We really thought the rule would be out a number of years ago."

Instead, Welch blames the Access Board's limited resources and the difficulty of developing new accessibility standards.

Unlike buildings, "vessels move, and they move up and down and sideways, and some of the things that work in a building on land just don't work on a vessel," he added. "So it's a little bit more complicated coming up with the rules and coming up with the design features."

Attempts to reach the Access Board about the delay were not immediately returned.

Ahead of the proposal's release, Welch and other representatives of the passenger ship industry met with White House officials in two separate meetings. Lobbyists and representatives from the Cruise Lines International Association and Disney and Royal Caribbean cruise lines attended a March meeting with officials from the OMB and the Access Board. 

In 2011, rules from the Justice and Transportation Departments went into effect regulating treatment of people with disabilities on ships. Once the new shipbuilding guidelines are finalized, they will be inserted into those rules to carry the force of law.

Foreign cruise ships have resisted new rules, but in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that foreign-flagged ships in American waters must comply with the American with Disabilities Act.