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Aspen shares her favourite accessible cruising stories

A woman sitting on the floor next to a wheelchair, smiling at the camera. She has long, wavy brown hair and is wearing a black dress, black flats, and red lipstick. She has a necklace on, and her left hand is resting on the floor while her right hand is on the wheel of the wheelchair. The background is a plain, light-colored wall, giving a clean and simple aesthetic to the photo.

Due to an adverse reaction to medication in September 2021, twenty-four-year-old Aspen Baxter now lives with chronic illness and disability. She is paralyzed from the waist down but travel has been a consistent and vital part of her life.

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I’ve been travelling my whole life, so it is the only consistent thing I’ve had since becoming disabled. I lost just about everything else—friends, jobs and all of the things that are normal in people’s lives. Travel is that one thing that remained so I want to encourage other people with disabilities—mental, physical, everything, to continue living life and get out there no matter what you’re going through because life can change in an instant. 

Travel is more than a passion. It’s my lifeline. Despite multiple medical appointments and challenges, having trips to look forward to keeps me motivated and engaged. It’s where I find freedom, joy and a sense of normalcy that transcends my physical limitations.

I typically travel with my parents as it’s safer given my medical needs. However, I also have caretakers who step in when necessary. My preference, though, is sharing these experiences with my parents, who are not just my family but also my best friends.

I have two older sisters who serve in the military and live farther away, so our time together is limited. However, when we can, I cherish travelling with them, like the recent very memorable cruise we took on the Carnival Mardi Gras, which marked a significant step in independent travel for me.

What attracted you to cruising?

I’ve been cruising since I was seven. Every cruise but one has been with Carnival. It’s reasonably priced, which is great for those of us who are on disability, we don’t have this crazy high income and it is family-friendly. There are a lot of activities for everyone and I appreciate that. They’ve been very accommodating with my disability and I think that, because I was comfortable with the cruise line prior to being disabled, I was then comfortable enough to do my first cruise as a disabled individual with them. It was a great first experience, everyone was willing to support me and I’ll continue to cruise with them. I will try other cruise lines, but I’m comfortable with Carnival and I’m very thankful for how accommodating they have been.

What ports of call do you enjoy the most?

I was pleasantly surprised at Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, Carnival’s private island, mainly because it’s a tender port and I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to get off or not. But the staff and crew were beyond helpful getting me on the tender, putting me in a safe position, and then when we got to the island, they had beach wheelchairs available for use at no charge. My dad transferred me into the beach wheelchair, we were able to leave my wheelchair so we did not have to push both of them around. That’s definitely one of my favourite ports since being in a wheelchair. The other is Aruba, which is my favourite all around. I always enjoy just looking at the shops. Cozumel was amazing too, with plenty of areas to get around, a lot to see, lots of shopping, restaurants and everything. I really haven’t had a bad experience at any of the ports.

How do you typically plan for a cruise? 

I have to do a lot! I have to prepare myself physically, mentally and medically. I also prepare my service dog and that comes with a lot of additional stressors. Luckily, I go to counselling twice a week, so I talk through those things with my counsellor. But the biggest stressors are definitely with my service dog. It’s my responsibility to research and get all of the paperwork ready for her, whether it’s fecal exams or proof of rabies or other vaccinations. I have to travel with my mobility device, so I have to make sure my wheelchair is kept up. I travel with a portable air compressor to make sure my tires are always inflated. I have heating pads, gel packs and all of these things that a lot of people wouldn’t normally think of, but you do have to when you’re disabled.

How does your service dog behave on the cruise?

I did only one cruise with her so far and she did really well. I made sure to maintain flexibility in case she got seasick or overwhelmed or had sea legs, but I had no problems with her.  She was hesitant to use the tray they provided for her for the restroom because it was something she’d never used before. She’s trained to use the bathroom on multiple surfaces but the tray was strange because it wasn’t grass or dirt so getting her used to that was the hardest part, but other than that she just did her normal thing—helped me when needed and just stayed by my side. I think she was more exhausted than usual because we were on vacation, out more and she wasn’t resting as much. She’s not used to this because I’m stuck in bed so often due to my illnesses. When we’re on vacation, it’s go, go, go, but I’m really thankful she’s there to support me through it all.

What type of support does your dog provide?

She’s specifically mobility task trained, so she picks things up for me if I drop them so I’m not at risk of  falling. She can open doors, close doors, shut drawers, bring my medication and water bottles to me. She’s not seizure trained but she provides sensory support when I do have seizures. She’ll either lay on top of me or get on my lap and provide deep pressure. When she does deep pressure therapy, it lowers my heart rate, which typically snaps me out of a seizure faster. She is now learning to sense my seizures, but she wasn’t professionally trained for that. 

Your favourite things to do on the ship?

I really like the comedy shows. They’re one of my favourite and I try to go to at least two or three on each cruise. I like the Love and Marriage Show—it’s funny. The piano bar in the evening and night shows, trivia, karaoke . . . but I stay away from the big party gatherings on the Lido deck because they’re overwhelming for me. Carnival is really good about having sections specifically for people in wheelchairs throughout the theatres and so I typically stay in the back in case I were to have some kind of issue and needed to leave quickly. The serenity deck is calm and quiet and one of my favourite places to be. I have a lot of sensory issues so just being able to stare at the water is calming and peaceful. Staring at the water moving behind us temporarily takes all of the stress and the pain away. It seems like the ocean steals them from you and you’re leaving them all behind. It’s magical and relaxing during the day and at night—almost therapeutic.

How accommodating is the crew on the Carnival cruises?

Absolutely amazing! When embarking, disembarking and then every night when I go to dinner, they’d already have the dining chair out of the way so my wheelchair can have a spot at the table which is really appreciated because staff have so many other things to worry about. When doing formal pictures, they’d always ask if I wanted to stay in my chair or if they should help me transfer elsewhere. They’ve always been beyond helpful. 

I’ve only been on one cruise with my service dog so far, but the staff were amazing with her too. She’s a Labrador Retriever and goes everywhere with me. They explained things that I needed to know about having her onboard and made sure she had an area to go to the bathroom. 

On my last cruise, what stood out to me was that on port days, people were cramming into the elevators to get to the deck to disembark and it was hard to get into one, especially in a wheelchair! But staff were stationed by the elevators on each deck to ensure that one was reserved specifically for the disabled. That was amazing because I never had that experience before. I was very thankful for that because I do get very overwhelmed when I can’t get on an elevator, especially in those situations because I cannot take the stairs.

For those who are interested in swimming, the larger and newer ships have pool lifts. My very first experience cruising as a disabled person was positive and a good motivation to keep on doing this because I knew that it was possible for me to cruise enjoyably. If I had a bad first experience, I wouldn’t still be cruising. But Carnival has been amazing every time. 

How independent are you on board?

I am pretty independent. I like the option to use the buddy system, for many reasons, not just because I’m a wheelchair user. But because I have my dog, I am able to get out and go places on my own. If I’m not feeling right, I wouldn’t venture out on my own, but I do explore independently. I feel safe on Carnival. Even the guests are kind and helpful.

What do you think Carnival can improve?

Sadly, Carnival does not offer many excursions for disabled passengers. That is one of the disappointing things to me. I hope they start including disabled guests in excursion planning because in each port there should be options for them. They are amazing in a lot of ways, but this is one area that needs to change. I like to remind everyone that it’s not that disabled passengers are trying to make things harder. Accessibility is literally for everyone.

I am going with them to Alaska in May and they seem to have way more accessible options for that specific cruise. It will be interesting because our onshore accessible activities were never done with the cruise line.

Do you make use of social opportunities on board?

It’s different on every cruise, but I have business cards. If I speak with someone, I’ll give them my card which has a QR code so people can scan them either on the ship or when they get off. I don’t pay for internet on a cruise because I consider this as my time to be away from internet and social media. Although I’m an introvert, I’ve made quite a few friends who I stay in contact with through Facebook, Instagram and email. I don’t go to meetups because I am autistic and really bad at reading people and understanding social cues, but if it’s a natural conversation or someone asks a question in the elevator, that’s easier. I put myself out there on social media but it’s a lot harder for me to do in person. On cruises I’ve met many amazing people.

How is social media for you—are people kind?

No, not always. There were a lot of times earlier in my social media journey when I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue. People will bully you and say things over social media that they will never say to your face. But there have been so many amazing people who have told me that I’m making a difference and encouraging them to want to get out. The positive feedback kept me going through all of the bullying, mean comments and messages. I’m receiving far less now. People are a lot kinder, but I have had to  block people for saying inappropriate things and just being rude.

How often do you travel? 

Four international trips per year. Last year I probably travelled more than I’ve ever done before. I do many weekend trips too and go on a cruise once or twice per year. I try to do something enjoyable once a month. I think it’s important for everyone to do this, even if it’s just a day trip to somewhere that’s three or so hours away.

Advocacy efforts 

I go to Santa Fe Family Life Center here in Oklahoma, which has a program for children with disabilities. They teach accessible sports and offer basketball, dance, tennis and different activities for kids, all in an inclusive way. They also provide adaptive wheelchairs. I go there to interact with kids and help out at the gym and at their disability events because they are doing their best to try to become more inclusive.

I do speaking engage-ments at different organizations and workplaces. My talks are about accessibility and how to make places more accommodating. I also speak on mental health because that runs big in my story. I’ve worked with Explore Branson and was recently published in one of their articles. They brought me to Branson and I prepared content for them about hotels in their city. I also did a few blogs for Visit Corpus Christi about a simple two-day trip I did there.

I advocate to encourage other people with disabilities to not be afraid to venture out and explore. 

Learn more about Aspen by visiting her online accounts:  Blog, Facebook, Instagram, Linktree.

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