Christine and Doug Hunsinger honeymooned in Montreal, vacationed in Toronto, and Christine Hunsinger recently started rockclimbing. When the Silver Spring couple learned they had won a Caribbean cruise, they anticipated new adventures.
However, when the Hunsingers asked the cruise ship company Cunard Lines whether they could bring their dog Judge, the company said none of them could go. As it turned out, the dog is a guide dog and Cunard said the Hunsingers could not go because they are blind.
After queries from The Washington Post, Cunard officials said yesterday, they had had a change of mind and the Hunsingers can leave with the cruise from San Juan on Saturday -- if they can find two sighted people to travel with them for $500, the cost of their air fare to meet the cruise in Puerto Rico.
"First we said yes, then we said no, and now we're saying yes again," Cunard Vice President Ron Santangelo said yesterday afternoon. "We've had them on and off, and I apologize profusely."
"Part of me feels like we're selling out, because they really still haven't acknowledged the fact that we can do this by ourselves," said Doug Hunsinger, adding that a couple of friends have agreed to join them for the trip. "But it's so close at hand that I don't feel like fighting it. This is good enough."
Doug Hunsinger, 34, and Christine, 38, who work as claims representatives at the Social Security Administration, said they won tickets worth more than $3,000 for the weeklong cruise at the Association of North American Radio Clubs convention near Toronto in July.
Two weeks ago, after the company first refused to allow the couple to sail, Doug Hunsinger said in an interview, they were offered a week's vacation at a Cunard-owned hotel in the Caribbean instead of the cruise. He said he refused the offer out of principal, and because he would rather take the cruise than lounge on a beach.
Doug Hunsinger said his wife had enjoyed two ocean cruises, accompanied by a sighted person, on different cruise lines several years ago.
"This was billed as a radio cruise, and they were going to have radio equipment," he said. "Since I'm a radio enthusiast, I found that interesting. The other thing is that I hadn't been on a cruise before, and I thought it would be fun, to play the slot machines and go on shore in different places."
The Hunsingers, who have been blind since birth, said they have managed to live independent lives and were confident about taking the cruise. He said his wife recently started rock-climbing lessons. "And I'm not totally a house vegetable," he said. "I like to walk and go to new places."
Santangelo said the decision to refuse passage was made on the recommendations of company laywers and medical advisers who feared a risk to the Hunsingers. He said Cunard has had blind passengers, but they were always accompanied by a sighted person.
The Hunsingers were "a very big problem, and we had a lot of reservations," Santangelo said. "They have to travel to Puerto Rico, and then get on a ship that's going to stop in a different port every day." Without a sighted guide, he said, "the chances of them having a problem was incredibly high."
According to Marc Maurer, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, some federation members have traveled on Cunard ships without meeting any resistance, while others have been refused passage.
"I don't think there's any shipping line that absolutely refuses blind people," Maurer said. "But every now and again, somebody will get a strange notion. Usually it has to do with safety, and that part's annoying. Blind people aren't any less safe than anybody else . . . . Sure it's dangerous, but no more dangerous for the blind guy than the sighted guy, and it's not very dangerous for either one of them."
A similar issue has been raised regarding airlines, which blind and other handicapped people have said discriminate against them. The Department of Transportation is drafting regulations to implement a federal law prohibiting discrimination against passengers with disabilities.
Some blind people told a government panel last month that they often have conflicts with airline employes over seating and some confrontations have ended with their removal by police from the plane.
Ann Stevens, a spokeswoman for the Holland-American cruise line, said that during drills or emergencies ship personnel are stationed at stairwells to make sure passengers are moving in the right direction.
Because ships have railings along walls and hallways, Stevens said, "a ship might even be a little easier for them than a lot of other places."