“Contact hosts in advance to discuss access in detail. Have hosts measure door widths and bed height. Ask about terrain in general and if there is gravel, pavement, hills or bumps in the path of travel.” — Crystal Evans
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.
“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