Whenever I hear someone mention Airbnb, I cringe — on the inside, at least. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with Airbnb, the home-sharing business that has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years and has opened up affordable accommodations to millions of people around the world. The problem is, it hasn’t done so for people like me.
Airbnb is part of something called the sharing economy, an evolving system in which people who own certain things, like homes or cars, rent them out to others when they are not using them. In many cases, travelers can save a significant amount of money by staying at an Airbnb host’s property rather than at a hotel. Uber is another company that is part of the sharing economy. Drivers use their own vehicles to drive people around town. Despite Uber’s sometimes lax regulations and harassment and discrimination scandals, people still love using it and other services like it because of their lower prices and the ease of summoning a vehicle.
There are many companies that are part of this new economy, but for the purposes of accessible travel, Airbnb and Uber are the most relevant. And sadly, wheelchair users are largely being left out of it.
Because Airbnb involves people renting out their private homes, the company lives in a sort of regulatory gray area. Homeowners in the United States who use Airbnb are not required to make their properties comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, although they are prohibited from discriminating against people with disabilities and those who use service animals. A few years ago, Airbnb gave homeowners the option of describing their properties as wheelchair accessible. But in most cases homeowners who are able-bodied tend to believe “wheelchair accessible” means a wheelchair user can get through the front door — and that’s about it. This puts wheelchair users in the exhausting position of having to contact every Airbnb host who has listed a home as wheelchair friendly in their destination to ask questions about roll-in showers, doorway widths, ramps and other items, over and over again.
While Uber has improved its accessibility options in some areas, it still has a long way to go. In January 2016, Uber began its UberWAV program (WAV for wheelchair accessible vehicle) in Toronto. The company was able to offer the vehicles in limited locations by partnering with paratransit agencies, and Uber says its drivers are certified by the Community Transportation Association of America “in safely driving and assisting people with disabilities.” Despite this program, the company has developed something of a reputation for having drivers who fail to respond to calls from wheelchair users, or who drive right past passengers who have wheelchairs or service animals.
While UberWAV sounds like a great step forward for wheelchair travelers, its availability is so limited that the service is often rendered useless. A CNN article from May 2016 explained: “In San Francisco, where Uber is based, there were consistently zero UberWAV vehicles available. In Los Angeles and Portland, there were zero to one cars available, with wait times between 25 and 45 minutes.”
UberWAV is also not as cheap as its fellow Uber ride services, and in some cases, the rates are astronomical. A wheelchair traveler, John Morris, wrote in his WheelchairTravel.org blog in March 2016, that when wheelchair users request an accessible Uber in Washington, “the company is only connecting you with one of the local cab companies.” He noted: “You won’t get Uber’s discounted rate — you’ll instead pay the city’s standard cab fare. Oh, and they’re collecting a $2 booking fee to boot.”
So where does this leave wheelchair users who want to take advantage of the savings and convenience that the sharing economy offers?
Fortunately, some smart entrepreneurs have realized the huge need for accessible accommodations around the world. In June 2015, Srin Madipalli and Martyn Sibley introduced Accomable, which is essentially an international Airbnb-style service for wheelchair users. The site vets submissions from homeowners around the world who want to rent their accessible homes. Airbnb itself took a huge step toward improving its meager inventory of truly accessible properties by recently purchasing Accomable. The company will add Accomable’s 1,100 listings to its existing inventory of more than four million homes. It will also work with Accomable’s staff to add features so homeowners can detail in their listings whether their homes have stairs or an elevator, doorways and accessible bathrooms.
Airbnb is also trying to train existing homeowners to be more aware of what accessible really means by working with the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers to help hosts more accurately describe accessibility features at their listings. This is all very promising — but changes will take considerable time.
As for transportation, Uber claims it is starting up UberWAV models in cities across the United States and partnering with commercial wheelchair-accessible vehicle providers to extend its reach. But in June, Equal Rights Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, filed a lawsuit against Uber for not making its service accessible for disabled customers in Washington. In July, the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, along with other disability rights groups, sued Uber, arguing that the company violates New York City human rights laws because it doesn’t have enough wheelchair-accessible cars available.
It’s encouraging that some companies are taking steps in the right direction to accommodate wheelchair travelers, albeit after being pushed. For now, it seems that unless we create our own spaces in the sharing economy, we are doomed to be largely left out of it.
Sylvia Longmire, is a [medically] retired Air Force captain and former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. She is founder of Longmire Consulting and the President and founder of The PreJax Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides scholarships to students with multiple sclerosis (MS) or have a parent with MS.