Wollongong scientist Justin Yerbury reaches confidential settlement with Royal Caribbean

Professor Justin Yerbury and his wife Rachel were devastated in March when Royal Caribbean would not allow Prof Yerbury aboard the seven-night cruise. Picture: Sylvia Liber
Professor Justin Yerbury and his wife Rachel were devastated in March when Royal Caribbean would not allow Prof Yerbury aboard the seven-night cruise. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Prominent Wollongong scientist Professor Justin Yerbury has reached a settlement with cruise company Royal Caribbean after he was turned away from a seven-night cruise due to his special needs.

Prof Yerbury, Wollongong's 2019 Citizen of the Year, has spent the past decade researching motor neurone disease (MND) and was himself diagnosed with the degenerative condition in 2016.

"Cruise company Royal Caribbean has committed to a range of important practical changes to address the barriers we faced when trying to take a cruise in March," he posted on Twitter on Monday.

He said these included providing a single point of contact for guests with complex needs, as well as providing more information on their website about accessibility and how to contact their access team.

Prof Yerbury said the cruise company had also agreed to make their medical assessment process more transparent and to arrange disability training for their staff.

"I am pleased Royal Caribbean has listened to my concerns and has worked with me to make changes to ensure that other people with complex needs don't have to experience the disappointment and hurt of being refused access to a much anticipated holiday because of their disability," he said.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), which represented Prof Yerbury, said the successful claim would make it easier for people with disability to access and enjoy cruises.

"This case was about ensuring that people with disability have access to the same transport and holiday options as everyone else whenever possible, and are treated with the same level of dignity and respect that everyone deserves," Michelle Cohen, from PIAC, said.

"We hope other cruise companies will follow Royal Caribbean's lead and improve their disability policies and procedures.

"People with disability must not be unreasonably excluded from the opportunity to enjoy holiday packages.

"Travel providers must provide clear information to the public about accessibility and ensure requests to accommodate complex needs are dealt with efficiently and lawfully."

Prof Yerbury and his wife Rachel were devastated in March when the world-renowned molecular biologist was turned away from a seven-night cruise from Sydney to New Caledonia due to his condition.

They'd keenly anticipated the break aboard Explorer of the Seas with their daughters and other family members; had filled in a special needs form and supplied a wealth of information about MND to the cruise company.

In the four months since they'd booked the cruise, they'd also sent many emails and made several attempts to talk directly with a Royal Caribbean representative or the ship's doctor - with no replies.

So when their party of nine - including two carers - turned up for the cruise they were crushed when Prof Yerbury was refused access.

"I would hope that going through this process would mean that a cruise would still be an option for people in our situation," he told the Mercury.

"At least the changes will mean people with a disability should not be turned away while they are boarding.

"The original refusal was certainly hurtful given all the effort that had gone in to us organising the trip, and they did not treat me with respect that everyone deserves to be treated.

"Hopefully, the measures put in place will ensure that this doesn't happen to someone else."

A Royal Caribbean spokesperson said the incident "identified opportunities" on how the company could better support guests with complex special needs.

"Since then, we met with the Yerburys in their home to understand their concerns and hear their suggestions," the spokesperson said.

"We reviewed our policies and procedures for guests with disabilities, and committed to a number of improvements, including how our policies are communicated and supporting guidelines so our staff can better respond to requests from our guests with disabilities.

"We have personally and publicly apologised to the Yerburys and we thank them for their guidance and suggestions.

"We are pleased that we could reach a satisfactory outcome for the Yerburys without formal proceedings."

Prof Yerbury works tirelessly at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute to uncover better treatments - or one day a cure - for MND.

MND is the name given to a group of diseases in which the nerve cells - neurones - controlling the muscles that enable us to move, speak, breathe and swallow; undergo degeneration and die.

He has a genetic form of MND and has lost his mother, sister and other family members to the disease.

With the ventilation he had been using was failing, he underwent a tracheostomy and laryngectomy in January 2018 so he could continue his vital research.

The details of the settlement remain confidential.

This story Scientist Justin Yerbury settles with Royal Caribbean after cruise debacle first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.