Since 2012, my husband Patrick and I have traveled to 21 countries together. I use an electric scooter for mobility and a ventilator for breathing, and Patrick, who is nondisabled, is flexible and supportive. We prefer adventuresome and authentic travel experiences, so we have stayed in people’s homes from Tahiti to Iceland to Greece, that are offered through peer-to-peer lodging websites like Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway, FlipKey and HomeExchange.
We have met hosts who offered extraordinary hospitality, and everything from delightfully wheelchair accessible homes to impossible to access toilets, houses with steps where none should have been, and monumental misunderstandings that led to unnecessary difficulties. Access is a highly personalized concept — what works for me might not work for someone who has my same disability but a different personality. So while we would not exchange our travel experiences for more accessible and sanitized touristic hotel stays, we do have minimum requirements that we have to work within. What we have learned through our extensive travel experiences is that we, as travelers with disabilities, have to ask numerous detailed questions, and we have to be prepared with plan B if a lodging turns out to be just too hard to manage.
Potentially more affordable than hotels, peer-to-peer lodging is becoming increasingly realistic for wheelchair users. But you should ask detailed questions and have a plan B.
The Good, the OK and the Unmanageable
Although it can be time-consuming, it is possible to secure accessible — or accessible enough — homes using peer-to-peer lodging sites. Following are a few of our successful experiences, and one unsuccessful booking.
We arrived in Paris midafternoon on a very hot day and strolled several blocks from the Gare du Nord to our rental, dragging our roller bags behind us. We had chosen this lodging for proximity and wheelchair access.
Upon arrival to this 19th century building, I was blocked by a small threshold at the front door. Quickly problem solving, the host offered us a large wooden cutting board to use as a ramp. Hurray! It worked. We were ushered into this impressive basement apartment featuring a glass roof, ultra modern furniture and replicas of classical sculptures. We’d never seen a home like this.
While the bathroom was a little cramped, the AC a little weak for this 100 degree day, what an experience to stay in what seemed to be an imitation of the glass pyramid at the Louvre! Even though this apartment was not completely accessible, we made it work and were rewarded with a unique lodging experience.
Similarly the apartment we rented in Reykjavik offered insights into life in Iceland. It was 40 degrees and raining outside, but since geothermal energy is provided free to every household by the government, a cozy heat steamed up from the floor to warm our travel-weary bones. The midnight sun played tricks with us at bedtime, and black out curtains had to be deployed to block the sun, which shone well past 2 a.m. The bathroom — with free unlimited hot water — proved easy to use as every modern apartment in Reykjavik is built to standards that make it useable and visitable by wheelchair users.
Tip: “When a host seems concerned or inexperienced with disability, I’ll pick up the phone and discuss the lodging with them rather than continue by email. Being clear about my situation and showing I’m a reasonable person with lots of travel experience seems to allay fears.”
When we traveled to Santorini, I did not expect the picturesque whitewashed dwellings to be a possibility for me. Much to my surprise, after an extended search, we found a largely accessible typical Greek home of white stucco and blue balconies overlooking the sea. Ramps to the upstairs — although steep — were serviceable; outdoor seating area complete with a grapevine-covered pergola and traditional BBQ grill, swimming pool and newborn kittens rounded out our idyllic moment in Greece.
But our trip to Portland, Oregon, was a disaster in miscommunications.
After a long travel day, we checked into our rented studio. We spent a few hours setting up my medical equipment, then we got washed up and settled into bed. All of a sudden, an insistent knock came at the door. Well after midnight, it seemed this must be a mistake, but the knocking became louder and louder. “You have 10 minutes to get out of here!” the angry voice screamed.
I use a ventilator and electric scooter and cannot get in or out of bed solo. So Patrick turned on the light, put on some clothes and answered the door. We asked the irate woman to come in … but she wouldn’t enter and wouldn’t talk to me, only Patrick. She stood at the door getting more and more agitated. As manager of the building, she demanded to know how we got in.
We were confused: We had arranged through Airbnb to use our host’s apartment while he is in Germany. We had spoken to him by phone to confirm the measurements of his bathroom and doorway, the address and legitimacy of his listing. Andrea, his upstairs neighbor, gave us the keys to the apartment and told us the building rules. The apartment was a small, ground floor, centrally located studio. We thought we had hit the jackpot for our month stay as the studio was ADA-compliant with a roll-in shower, but what we didn’t know was that this building did not allow sublets.
“I don’t know how you got in, but you have 10 minutes to get out, or I’m calling the police,” the manager growled. Patrick and I looked sideways at each other. We are not the type of people who could have “snuck in.” We carry two to three suitcases of equipment, ramps, medical supplies and other disability-related items when we travel. We stand out in any situation.
Indeed the manager did call the police. Two young officers showed up right away and it was agreed we’d vacate the apartment by 10 a.m. the next morning.
We spent the following days in a whirlwind of trying to find an accessible place to move to, to get a refund on what we had paid, to get back the taxes paid separately. We also spoke to the people at Airbnb. While compassionate, they had little disability experience and fewer ideas how to help. Specific requests we made had to go up the food chain to supervisors and were generally denied. What might have worked for a nondisabled guest did not work for us: there were only a few listings identified as accessible that were available this late in the game.
Ultimately the listing where Airbnb moved us was neither actually accessible nor was it a legal short term rental.
‘We’ll Look Into That’
In addition to problems with accessibility, some people with disabilities report being screened out by potential hosts. It’s common practice in lodging networks for the host and traveler to post a profile with self-description and identifying photo. We who have obvious disabilities know that nondisabled people often make assumptions based on disability stereotypes that can lead to discrimination. This kind of visual discrimination is common on lodging websites.
“I actually had someone refuse my booking just because I asked how many stairs there were into the lodging when I could see stairs in the photos,” says Curtis Walker, 39, who walks with difficulty and has chemical sensitivities. “I have had so much trouble finding lodging that does not have chemical issues that I accept stairs when I select a place to stay,” says the Portland, Oregon, man.
As Walker found, guests with disabilities who ask specific accessibility questions to hosts before booking or whose profile photos reveal their disabilities face the same potential for discrimination as African American guests whose profile photo reveals their race. However, no one in the peer-to-peer housing industry is talking about disability or increasing disability access to listings. Despite a big push by Airbnb to become more racially inclusive, the company has been conspicuously silent on treatment of guests who have disabilities. (Repeated requests for comment were ignored by Airbnb.)
When potential guests with obvious disabilities experience disability discrimination on peer-to-peer lodging sites like Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO and Flipkey, they find it difficult to verify whether a host was acting in a discriminatory way. When queried about this issue, companies usually assuage guests by saying “we’ll look into it,” but of course nothing comes of that. Companies should have a more rigorous way to track issues between hosts and guests and eliminate discriminatory players.
Trust but Verify
Difficulty in using peer-to-peer housing websites is common for travelers with disabilities, as Crystal Evans, 35, a wheelchair user from Boston, discovered Labor Day 2015. The host had mentioned other guests who use wheelchairs, which led Evans and her husband to think the house they booked was accessible. But when they arrived in the evening, they found that it was not.
Peer-to-Peer Websites that Filter for Wheelchair Access
Functional filter, but verify with follow up questions:
“My husband used Airbnb and got a house in Maine with a ramp, but when we arrived, there was only a ramp to the porch and a 10-inch step into the house,” says Evans, who has a neuromuscular disease. “The bathroom was not accessible — it had sliding shower doors, which are far harder than a tub with shower curtain to transfer into. And no grab bars.”
There were no nearby lodgings in this rural area and no cell phone or landline service to look into other options.
Other families traveling with them helped lift Evans and her wheelchair separately into the house, but it was a dangerous and difficult transfer that had to be done a couple times a day. They eventually found a couple of boards to make a makeshift ramp, but it was neither sturdy nor smooth and required several helpers each time. And there wasn’t a solution for the inaccessible bathroom so Evans “just did what I could.” Even the outdoor area where the families gathered by the fire pit was inaccessible to Evans due to gravel.
Evans still wonders how former guests who use wheelchairs had negotiated the steps and narrow doorway. Most nondisabled people think they know enough to list their home as accessible, but she stresses, “people don’t always know what accessible means.” The system needs to be more detailed and interactive, rather than just taking someone’s uneducated word that a house is accessible. “The consequences are serious,” she points out, and the responsibility for clarity around access is shared between the host and the traveler.
With all of the problems she experienced, would Evans use Airbnb again? “Yes! I just know what issues to look out for next time,” she says.
Even when you ask all the right questions, problems may still occur. “Airbnb is kind of a crap shoot,” says Mike Neher, 53, a quad from Brownsville, Oregon, who uses a manual wheelchair. “I found one guy in Paris who was a wheelchair user and he had a great place. The place we stayed in London said it was accessible, but had a step in the front door. As you know, you always have to double-check when they say it’s accessible.”
CEO and co-founder of Airbnb Brian Chesky stresses the importance of building a community of trust and a sense of belonging. While people with disabilities may feel welcome at Airbnb if things go ideally between host and guest, experiences like Evans’ and Neher’s suggest guests with disabilities don’t yet fully belong to the Airbnb community and should embrace the old adage “trust but verify.”
Access is Cultural
While travel with a disability may be fraught with unforeseen difficulties, understanding the culture where you are traveling may also help avoid issues. For instance, in Europe, one step is not considered inaccessible, as most people who use wheelchairs travel with an assistant. In France most toilets are in a separate smaller closet from the shower and sink “wetroom.” Often European bathrooms have a bidet next to the toilet, making a small bathroom even smaller and wheelchair transfers very difficult. In Asian countries, hosts will not generally offer a photo of a toilet when showing the bathroom, so you’ll have to ask. In Greece nearly all showers are enclosed by glass and placed right next to the toilet, leaving no room for the wheelchair or transfer.
There’s a big world out there and lots to learn about navigating it successfully. Knowledge is power in terms of accessibility. Rather than being scared or intimidated by travel, gather detailed information, make a back up plan, and go!
Accomable Puts Accessibility First
One of the brightest developments in peer to peer lodging is Accomable.com. Launched in 2015 by travelers Srin Madipalli and Martyn Sibley, who both use wheelchairs, Accomable is an insightful and intuitive lodging website run by and for people with disabilities. While many lodging providers ignore the accessibility questions that travelers with disabilities need answered in detail, Accomable offers extensive check boxes for nearly all accessibility questions, and video verification so that travelers and hosts are fully informed. Accomable asks hosts detailed questions about accessibility and connects travelers with accommodations that offer the level of access each traveler specifies.
Madipalli feels Accomable offers something uniquely valuable to travelers with disabilities: “You can trust that all of our properties will have the accessible features they promise. It’s the reason we started Accomable. I have spinal muscular atrophy and use a motorized wheelchair, and while I love to travel, I grew very frustrated with arriving at an accommodation that advertised itself as accessible when it simply wasn’t. We’re trying to change that.”
“Accomable is like the Airbnb or FlipKey for people who have a disability or mobility issue,” says Madipalli. “We recently set our guarantee that all of our listings will have step-free, wheelchair-friendly access to the main entrance, bedroom and bathroom with at least one other adaptation. To do this we use video technology to verify the adaptations of each and every property that goes onto our site.”
In addition to providing lodging listings for travelers with disabilities, Accomable advocates for travelers with disabilities by creating partnerships with mainstream travel providers to document and improve accessibility. “We also work with large scale hotels, and have just signed a deal to work with the Hilton London Bankside as well as Radisson Blu and InterContinental Group, and they are extremely motivated to show off their incredible accessible rooms and facilities, and welcome disabled travellers,” says Madipalli. “We’re also working with HomeAway at the moment to identify which of their properties are accessible, so we can list them on Accomable.”