From Kicked Off to Welcome Aboard: How a Blind Vancouver Paralympian was Hired by Virgin Cruise Line

Shannon Paterson
Multi-skilled Journalist, CTV News Vancouver
Published Sept. 9, 2023

Donovan Tildesley, 39, has been blind since birth. But that hasn’t stopped him from traveling the world.

“I was very blessed to have parents who encouraged me to do any and everything that someone with sight could do,” said Tildesley.

Last November, he boarded a Virgin Voyages Caribbean cruise that he’d booked through a travel agent. “I made him aware and he made the company aware that I was blind,” said Tildesley.

But just as the ship was getting set to leave Miami, two Virgin Voyages crew members approached him.

“And they said, ‘Well, we have got some unfortunate news. We have determined that it’s not safe to have you on board as a solo blind traveller. So you will have to get off the cruise.’ And I said, ‘Really? You realize that I’ve travelled solo for a lot of my life. I’ve gone to the Paralympics four times.'”

A competitive swimmer, Tildesley was Canada’s flag-bearer at the 2008 Paralympics. Just hours after he posted to social media that he’d been kicked off the cruise ship, he got a call from the vice president of Virgin Voyages.

“And he apologizes profusely, he said ‘This shouldn’t have happened, this was a huge miscommunication. How can I make this right? Can I fly you to meet the ship in Roatan?'” Tildesley recounted.

He caught up with that cruise, and stayed in touch with the VP at Virgin. And it led to a job offer. “It took a few months to iron everything out, and to make a long story short, I am now contracted to Virgin as an accessibility consultant,” he said.

In late August, he was invited on board Virgin Voyages 50th anniversary VIP cruise, where he met none other than Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson.

“I shook his hand, he gives me a hug and I say, ‘Sir Richard, thank you for doing what you’re doing.'” As the cruise sailed around the Greek islands, Tildesley and a friend focused on accessibility on board.

“She acted as my eyes she and she and I walked around the ship together, and she noticed things I would not have normally noticed, whereby things can be improved for accessibility purposes for people who are blind,” said Tildesley.

He’s been invited on another cruise in November, where he will train Virgin Voyages crew on how to help blind passengers. It leaves from Miami, the same port where he was forced to disembark last year.

“There is a time to be angry, there is a time to be frustrated and yell and scream and jump up and down. But I think positive collaboration is really the way to go,” said Tildesley. “The work that I am doing now, I hope can pave the way so that this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”

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