When Andrew Garnett founded Special Needs at Sea four years ago, he was making equipment deliveries in his own car. “I would get up at three in the morning and drive to Port Canaveral, make my deliveries there, and then I’d drive across the state and make deliveries in Tampa and then drive back,” Garnett recalls. Now his company is able to deliver special needs equipment in 99 cities around the world, in over 20 countries.
Special Needs at Sea works with every major cruise line to live up to the motto of “Delivering an accessible world.” From providing Braille printing on ship menus, to delivering portable oxygen concentrators, from sign language interpreters to wheel chair rentals, Garnett is in the business of “pretty much anything special needs.” Even if a requested item is not standard, Special Needs at Sea will do its best to fulfill the need. Perhaps a client is a regular wheelchair user traveling to the beach for the first time. Wheelchair tires make it difficult to get through the sand, but beach wheelchairs can go where other chairs cannot. All a client has to do is call up and reserve the item.
A kiosk program gives the customer the option of either picking up equipment at the embarkation point or having it delivered directly to the stateroom. The kiosks are also useful for people who arrive for their vacations and did not realize that they could rent equipment or even that they would need it. People can rent on the spot at the kiosk, though Garnett recommends that they reserve ahead of time to save money and ensure that the equipment they need is there. Currently, Special Needs at Sea has an agreement with Holland America to have a kiosk for any Holland America vessel at the Ft. Lauderdale port. During summer, a kiosk is also located in Seattle for any ship that happens to be docking at the same terminal as a Holland America ship.
In addition to providing equipment, Special Needs at Sea works with cruise lines to develop accessible tours for customers. With the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation Cruise for a Cause, Garnett’s company assisted with finding accessible vehicles for transport on the ground and making sure restrooms and trails would be accessible enough for the group. It can also be a matter of being on the same page culturally. As Garnett has learned, “sometimes ‘accessible’ in some cultures means physically lifting the person to put them in the vehicle. That’s not accessible to me.”
Special Needs at Sea, part of the Special Needs Group, Inc. company, has quite a few things in store for the future. They just began a new initiative for travel agents called the SNG Certified Accessible Travel Advocate Program. “We’re really trying to empower the travel agents because travel agents will have clients that they’ve worked with for years who all of a sudden have a little bit more difficulty getting around,” says Garnett. “We’re teaching them to ask the probing questions, saying ‘How was the trip?’ or ‘Is there anybody in your party who has difficulty getting around?’ and giving them just enough knowledge so that they can speak and tell the difference between a wheel chair and a rollator and a mobility scooter.” It takes a little more than an hour for travel agents to become certified by taking an online course, but it makes a huge difference for their clients. As Garnett knows from experience, “If someone has a special need, you want to work with someone who knows how to work with you.”
Soon Special Needs at Sea will have a place on the website for customers to find a certified agent near them. There is also a resource area for agents to help them get the word out about which venues are most accessible. The company’s other plans for the future include expanding more into selling equipment to consumers and creating accessible shore excursions for cruise lines. As Andrew Garnett says, “We want to make it possible for anyone who wants to travel to be able to go.”