Wheelchair Accessible Jamaica
by Tracy Mankins 1996

In the fall of 1996, Tracy Mankins and her husband, Mark, explored the famous beach resort Sandals on the island of Jamaica. What follows is a holiday they won't soon forget.

The plane was becoming more uncomfortably hot by the second. I was exhausted and sore after over 12 hours of flights and plane transfers, and I was very angry at American Airlines after watching them manhandle and mishandle my power wheelchair and wheelchair batteries all day. When the American Airlines employee who assisted me off the plane in Montego Bay said, "Welcome to paradise" in his wonderful, thick Jamaican accent, I sincerely doubted his words.

Our vacation at Sandals Royal Caribbean, an all inclusive resort for couples only, just minutes from the Montego Bay airport, couldn't have started off much worse, but it ended up being the vacation of a lifetime for my husband Mark and I. With the exception of going to Canada, neither of us had been outside the U.S. before, so we didn't know what to expect. We were both pleasantly surprised to find much more wheelchair access than we anticipated. This access wasn't planned, it just sort of happened.

The airport at Montego Bay is quite old, and it has no elevators. The jets just park out on the runways, so folks who cannot independently leave the plane must be carried down the plane's steps in an aisle seat. Once on the ground though, it is smooth sailing into the airport itself, since there is just a small ramp at the entrance. The airline employees are happy to help you with anything on the upper level that you cannot access in your wheelchair. I would caution anyone who uses a wheelchair to take any possible tools that you might need to reassemble your chair (in case the airline messes it up) with you to Jamaica, as we found the Montego Bay airport employees to be lacking in this area. They also do not seem very experienced in high-tech equipment such as power wheelchairs, so you should be prepared to talk them through anything that might need done to your chair after the flight. There are no wheelchair repair places in Jamaica because sadly, most disabled Jamaicans who need wheelchairs find them hard to come by. You should go prepared for any breakdown that may occur. Also, if you plan to travel in a power wheelchair, or if you use any other type of adaptive equipment that needs to be charged or that operates on electricity, you will need a special adapter in order for your electrical equipment to work because Jamaica's electrical currents are slightly different from the U.S. standard.

Sandals Resorts does its best to make your entire vacation a pleasant experience you will want to repeat. They offer transportation to and from the airport. Sandals knew ahead of time that I would be traveling with a power chair, so arrangements were made to have both a car (for Mark and I to ride in) and a van (to transport the wheelchair) available. Wheelchair accessible transportation is not available in Jamaica. It was our experience however, that the Jamaican people are experts at finding solutions for problems, so even difficult details seem easier to tackle in Jamaica.

There was a glitch in our reservations with Sandals, and the staff at Royal Caribbean were not aware of my special needs upon our arrival. Despite this, within 15 minutes of our arrival, a ramp to our room had been set up, and all the adaptive equipment I needed had been installed. Mark and I couldn't help but consider what an ordeal such a glitch might have caused in the U.S., where things are supposed to be so accessible. Sandals has many different types of adaptive aids available. I was told that they are planning to purchase a van with a lift and beach chairs with big plastic wheels one can use to cross the sand to reach the water.

The accessibility at the resort is not perfect. The bathroom doors in the rooms are too narrow for most chairs to clear. Sometimes it's necessary to take the long way around to access the ramps. Things are definitely not up to ADA standards. There were few places on the resort that I could not easily get to in my wheelchair. Mark and I found ways to work around the obstacles we encountered. Depending on a person's disability, access in Jamaica could be better or worse than it was for me, so it pays to do some research before going.

Mark and I didn't leave the grounds of Royal Caribbean for the entire eight days. We didn't leave partially because of the problem of arranging usable transportation, but mostly because we were enjoying ourselves so much that we had no desire to leave. I did inquire about the general accessibility around the island. I was told that most places in the cities are flat and there are few steps anywhere on the island but I can't guarantee this, since I didn't see it for myself.

Each of the Sandals Resorts (there are six in Jamaica and 10 in the Caribbean) have their own gourmet restaurants. There were four different restaurants at the Royal Caribbean, and the food at each one was delicious. Sandals has round-the-clock activities (many are sports-related) and there are many different water sports available to guests. Special entertainment is scheduled every evening. Because my disability (Spinal Muscular Atrophy) is so limiting, the only water activity other than swimming that I could enjoy was the glass bottom boat ride, which was a real treat. Looking through the glass, we were able to view the huge coral reefs and the colorful tropical fish.

One of the highlights of our trip was the beach. At the Royal Caribbean, the private beach is very flat and you don't have to travel through much sand to get to the water. The sand was so hard-packed that I was able to drive my power chair right up to the water. The water itself was so calm and warm that I enjoyed a swim in the ocean for the first time in years.

Paradise means different things to different people. Living with a disability that makes me physically different than most people has left me yearning for a paradise where I am treated with respect and equality. From the time I arrived in Jamaica until the time I left, I was treated as a valued individual. For eight days, others looked me in the eye when speaking to me and I did not feel so different from everyone else. For the first time in our five years of married life, I was treated with as much respect by strangers as my able-bodied husband.

Now, when I think of Jamaica and yearn to return, I realize that it is not the beauty of the island and its varied vegetation that I miss. It isn't the beautiful sunsets at the beach, or the warmth of the Caribbean sun that I miss. What I miss are the wonderful, warm, and genuinely kind Jamaican people, for it was because of them that I got to experience eight days in a true paradise.

Note: to contact Sandals for more information, in North America: 1-800-SANDALS, UK: 071-581-9895, Sweden: 468-748-0015, Germany: 49-89-592-106.

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