Some say that the deaf community throws the best partries. So imagine seven of them, seven days and nights in a row! That’s what was on tap when Tabitha and Mac Partlow recently chartered a cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, where nearly every passenger out of the 3,800 was deaf.
The Partlows became motivated to host their own weeklong jam when they took a cruise a few years ago and enjoyed it so much that they wanted to share it with friends. But when they organized a group of traveling buddies, some of whom were deaf, the cruise line promised them interpreters and other accommodations that never materialized.
“We had about 25 guests who were out of luck, so they missed quite a bit of [the fun of] their cruise,” says Tabitha, who is a certified interpreter. “Though we worked very hard that week to make things the best we could for them, it wasn’t the same.”
(To make up for the misunderstanding, the cruise line allowed those disappointed guests to come back for a second week on the house, uh, ship.)
Here the Partlows talk about how they came to commandeer the biggest cruise ship in the world in their own remake of Mutiny on the Bounty:
MAC: After that first cruise, our friends said, “No more of that travel agent, you take care of it.”
TABITHA: So one year we took 350 deaf people on Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas, and it was amazing. We had a great time, and we knew that we could fill an even bigger ship. People wanted to see it happen. So we went for it. The idea was: Let’s do a whole ship and give people who are deaf the opportunity to be in their own community on a cruise. When we called Royal Caribbean, they said, “Not only can we do that, but we’ve got this fantastic new ship being built.” This was 2005. This ship wasn’t even on the radar for anybody.
Mac and I were brand-new travel agents, working out of our house, saying, “OK, let’s do it!” We advertised and got a tremendous response. Some people thought that this was going to be a huge challenge for us, and that we weren’t ready for it. But we were, and Royal Caribbean really stepped up and responded to the requests that we made. We said, “This is what we think,” and gave them some ideas. For instance, specialized room kits.
MAC: The kits that were in every room on the Freedom are going to be available upon request from here on out on Royal Caribbean voyages. They include a strobe-light door knocker, an amplifier for the phone and an alarm clock with under-mattress/under-pillow vibrator.
For this particular cruise, there were also sign-language interpreting services, closed captioning for the TV, as well as TeleTYpewriting (TTY).
TABITHA: In terms of entertainment, our goal was to provide an experience that was a bit more deaffocused. Our cruise director, John Maucere, did a great job.
MAC: He really helped with getting deaf performers to sign on. We had 16 of them, including CJ Jones, Anthony Natale, Bernard Bragg, Keith Wann and Sencity. The shows that Royal Caribbean had were phenomenal as well, and we didn’t want to cut them out. But we did want to add something that would be attention-grabbing to the deaf community. So we went for a combination of visual arts, and a louder, more powerful type of music.
MAC: When they told us they were going to build this ship and told us the name, we were like, ‘Oh, that’s perfect.’ It represents the freedom that people who are deaf can experience by themselves on a cruise, and we’re really excited about what’s possible down the line.
TONS OF FUN
From the first steps onto the ship terminal in the Port of Miami, I was overwhelmed by the way the Freedom of the Sea’s staff made eye contact and welcomed each person in sign language. After a few toots of the ship’s horn, off we sailed en route to Cozumel, Mexico; George Town, Grand Cayman; and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. It was truly a dream to drift along crystal blue Caribbean waters, especially for the thousands of members of the deaf and hard of hearing (D/HH) who had chartered the biggest cruise ship in the world. Passages Deaf Travel, working in concert with Royal Caribbean, made it not only possible but easy.
From the first steps onto the ship terminal in the Port of Miami, I was overwhelmed by the way the Freedom of the Sea’s staff made eye contact and welcomed each person in sign language. After a few toots of the ship’s horn, off we sailed en route to Cozumel, Mexico; George Town, Grand Cayman; and Ocho Rios, Jamaica.
It was truly a dream to drift along crystal blue Caribbean waters, especially for the thousands of members of the deaf and hard of hearing (D/HH) who had chartered the biggest cruise ship in the world. Passages Deaf Travel, working in concert with Royal Caribbean, made it not only possible but easy.
Designated interpreters were visible around the ship throughout the week. The crew had 30 training sessions to prepare for our cruise—and it showed. A picture menu in the dining room was even developed to help the wait staff and passengers communicate. As a person who is not affected by hearing loss, it was remarkable for me to understand how it feels to be in the minority.
Hanging out on the ship, many guests enjoyed the Flow Rider—a surf simulator that allows you to surf or body board on the ship. One feature for kids was the H2O Zone, where they could play among the vibrant sculptures, which sprayed water in all directions, or flop about in pools designated just for them. The rock climbing wall, ice skating rink, day spa and cantilevered whirlpools were also popular attractions.
In Cozumel, I joined a group that swam out into the Caribbean to snorkel, where two interpreters were present. They made sure each person was briefed on the safety precautions as well as general instructions. As we snorkeled together, the leader carried a flag so that we could follow en masse, while enjoying the refreshing waters, spectacular reefs and brilliantly colored fish.
Together, the cruise line and travel agency had notified Mac & Tab each port in advance that there would be deaf and hearing-impaired guests visiting. The locals got the heads-up as did many shop owners who made special arrangements, some employing interpreters.
The sparkling sea off Grand Cayman Islands stretched as far as I could see, fringed by fine white sand. There I joined a group that spent the day at a local beach club, where we enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere and general camaraderie, despite the fact that I had difficulty communicating at times.
One of the best parts of the trip was Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Though a steep climb, everyone in our tour group, including those who had low vision, made it up through the rushing water fall. It was an experience not to be missed! Also in Jamaica, Hands on Video Relay Services. (HOVRS), a sponsor of the cruise, had brought along clothing and financial donations they’d collected to St. Christopher’s School for the Deaf. HOVRS provides a new communication tool that allows the D/HH community to communicate effectively and naturally with the hearing world through American Sign Language, which was used every day to welcome guests to the pool deck. Deaf Nation, the media sponsor for the cruise, filmed most of the activities and many excursions, and showed a daily video montage.
It’s exciting to know that this wasn’t just a one-off: Passages Deaf Travel has exciting, upcoming plans, including upcoming trips to Alaska in 2008 and Hawaii and the Mexican Riviera in 2009.
by Andrea Kardonsky
Andrea Kardonsky runs the Deafness Research Foundation (DRF). Entering its 50th year of service, the DRF and its programs help to make a lifetime of hearing health possible for all people through quality research and education. DRF publishes Hearing Health magazine, which is DRF’s primary channel for public outreach and education to a national audience, including consumers with hearing and balance disorders and the professionals who serve them, such as otolaryngologists, audiologists, researchers and manufacturers.