Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Russian Cruises for people with disabilities

Due to a respiratory disorder Patty has a partial disability, can only walk for short distances, and has difficulty climbing stairs. Because of this we decided to hire a wheelchair to take with us to Russia.  We considered taking her little motorised scooter but it is heavy and the battery constantly needs recharging. If the battery ran down whilst on an excursion we could have been in trouble!
We knew beforehand that there would be challenges as the question about disabled guests is covered on the Viking River Cruises website.

Q:  Will the ship be able to accommodate a disabled passenger? What about the shore excursions?

A:  Viking River Cruises welcomes disabled guests but wishes all guests to understand that challenges will exist on board and during shore excursions. Some ships have elevators and some do not; some ships have split-level decks and/or significant thresholds that could make movement difficult. Under appropriate circumstances guests are permitted to use motorized scooters and wheelchairs on board. Shore excursions may require movement over cobblestones or up and down stairs; accordingly, a physically challenged guest will require the services of a responsible adult since crew availability is severely limited in most circumstances.

So what were the challenges?

On the boat
  • As there were usually two or three boats moored alongside each other, it wasn't possible to get her over the raised frames of the boat doorways while she was in the chair.  She had to get out of the wheelchair and step over the frames and step up and down the ramps that join the two or three boats together and walk through two or three boats to get to the Kirov.  A person who cannot walk would not be able to do this. This could have been overcome with extra, portable platforms at the same level as the gangways that join the boats.
  • The cabins are fairly small so Patty had to walk around inside the cabin. It was not spacious enough for the wheelchair to manoeuvre inside so she would not have managed if she was a permanent wheelchair user.
  • Most wheelchairs require doorways to be between 32" and 36" wide and her chair only just fitted through the door.  A motorised chair would not have fitted through the door.
  • A paraplegic or more disabled person would not have been able to access the en suite shower room and toilet as it is raised off the cabin floor.  In addition it is too small to accommodate a wheelchair.  

  • There is only one lift (elevator) on the boat, at the aft, and as our cabin was close to the forward reception it meant a long walk/push to get to the elevator and access the dining room and bars on higher decks. The spiral staircases are very steep and the steps are narrow.  If the elevator had broken down Patty would have been restricted to the main deck where our cabin was situated.
  • The space between the cabin walls and the spiral stairs was so narrow that we only just managed to get the wheelchair through. 

  • The passages are narrow and when the cleaners stacked packages of clean towels or cleaning equipment in the passage-ways, we had to keep moving them aside to get past.

  • In the dining room, the tables were arranged close together and it was often impossible for Patty to get to the buffet at breakfast and lunch time. 
On Land:

  • We were picked up at the airport in a bus that is not accessible for disabled people. This would be the first hurdle for a paraplegic or other disabled person to overcome.

  • None of the buses used on the land excursions were accessible - ie: no ramp or hoist. These are high, modern coaches and although Patty was able to climb up the few steps into the bus with some assistance, a more disabled person would not be able to get into the buses.

  • In St Petersburg there was a long ramp down to the pier where the boat was moored so it was fairly easy to get off and back onto the boat. In Uglich, Patty had to climb 23 steps to get to the village path for the walking tour of the town.

  • Very few of the churches, monuments, palaces, museums etc we visited are accessible for disabled people. Patty was able to climb the stairs to the Hermitage and used the elevator inside to get to the upper rooms (even though our guide told us that the elevator was out of order), but she missed out on a lot of places because she couldn't climb the stairs to get into the buildings and would not have been able to climb the stairs inside the buildings.

  • Patty managed at Mandrogy, Kizhi and Uglich but only with the help of a few willing passengers who helped push the chair on wooden boardwalks, gravel and cobbled paths.

  • In the towns and villages there were very few places that had ramps off the sidewalks or at intersections.  Often Patty had to get out of the chair so that I could lift it up onto the pavement.

  • A common difficulty was cobblestones - which we found in most places we visited.
The cost of the various tours and excursions are included in the the price of the cruise and a disabled person would have to forgo most of them as they are inaccessible due to architectural and other barriers.

Excursions Included in the Viking Cruise:

St Petersburg:
Hermitage Visit (entrance up a flight of stairs) and evening performance of Swan lake (not accessible - Patty didn't go).
Pushkin Palace (limited accessibility) afternoon City Tour of St Petersburg.

    • Mandrogy (limited accessibility)

    • Kizhi Walking Tour (limited accessibility)

    • Goritzy (limited accessibility - monastery not accessible, see cobble stone paths)
    • Yaroslavl - Coach and Walking tour. (Limited accessibility to churches or monuments)
    • Moscow - City Tour and Metro (not accessible): Red Square, Gum Dept Store and free time (for some reason, those who did not go on the metro were kept on the bus for 2 hours instead of being taken to the Red Square): Walking tour of the Kremlin.

      Besides all the challenges, we thoroughly enjoyed our river cruise and Patty was able to more than she thought she'd be able to do. This was because she can walk and was able to get in and out of the bus and in and out of the wheelchair when necessary.( are advertising a new ship to be launched in 2011 - the Katarina - that will have large, wheelchair accessible cabins and en suites. However, this doesn't change the inaccessibility of the many places in Russia that one would hope to visit.  I honestly cannot recommend a Russian River cruise to someone who uses a wheelchair permanently or who needs a walker unless they are prepared to be confined to a floating hotel for 12 days and forgo all the sightseeing tours and excursions that are included in the cruise price.


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    2. Enjoy your cruise - it was a WONDERFUL holiday and Patty was thrilled with the places she could visit.