By Frank Kineavy
It is a common frustration people with disabilities share when traveling: from trying to find an accessible rental car, to transferring into your seat, to praying that your motorized wheelchair isn’t damaged as it’s thrown into storage. All you are thinking is, “Please get my belongings and me to my destination, in one piece.”
What if finding lodging at your destination is just as taxing as the process to get there?
A recent Rutgers University study found that prospective renters who identified themselves as having disabilities were more likely to be rejected by hosts using the popular Airbnb website. Airbnb classifies itself as “a trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world — online or from a mobile phone or tablet.”
“It raises some troubling questions about who we are sharing with,” said Mason Ameri, a Rutgers University postdoctoral fellow who worked on the study. “Are we only sharing with people who resemble ourselves?”
The study was conducted to identify if the accessibility for consumers with disabilities is proportionate with the growing economic environment. People with disabilities consist of, depending how “disability” is defined, anywhere between 12.6 percent to 18.7 percent of the U.S. population, the study adds.
Researchers for the Rutgers study placed 3,847 lodging requests using Airbnb. The participants used fictitious travelers, including some that identified as having various disabilities, including blindness, cerebral palsy, dwarfism and spinal cord injuries.
The study sent out the lodging requests between June 1 and November 15, 2016. The studies showed that 75 percent of their requests were approved for potential guests that cited having no disabilities, while the approval rate plummeted to 61 percent for guests saying they had dwarfism, 50 percent for blind guests, 43 percent for those with cerebral palsy and 25 percent for spinal cord injuries.
Airbnb, which has faced accusations of racial discrimination among its hosts, requires its users to agree to abide by a policy that forbids discrimination based upon race, religion, nation of origin, or disability. The study found little difference in how hosts responded to requests from guests with disabilities before and after Airbnb adopted its nondiscrimination policy on September 8, 2016.
The new policy, for instance, states that hosts may not “Refuse to provide reasonable accommodations, including flexibility when travelers with disabilities request modest changes in your house rules, such as bringing an assistance animal that is necessary because of the disability.” Additionally, hosts may not “Charge more in rent or other fees for guests with disabilities.”
The blind traveler’s application for lodging included the phrase “please understand that I am blind and use a guide dog.” As a result, some hosts rejected the traveler entirely, while others tried to charge a fee for the guide dog.
Of the listings contacted for the study, only 6.6 percent were advertised as “wheelchair accessible.” Blind travelers were rejected or received no response at about the same rates from homes advertised as wheelchair accessible (35.3 percent) or not (34.3 percent).
Travelers who identified a spinal cord injury or as having cerebral palsy were more likely to be rejected or receive no response from non-wheelchair accessible homes.
Even when lodgings were listed as being wheelchair accessible, hosts were still more likely to approve (whether with a preapproval or with inquiries) guests without disabilities than guests with disabilities — with the exception of guests who reported having dwarfism.
Some hosts that rejected the possible guests explained that their homes were not properly accessible to people with disabilities. Conversely, some hosts that approved reservations were more than accommodating. In response to one approved guest with a spinal injury, the hosts replied, “We do have two steps up to the front porch but we’d be happy to assist you.”
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires hotels and other public places to make accommodations for people with disabilities — but it does not apply to lodging with five or fewer rooms, as well as places occupied by the resident of the home.
“If we’re entering an era where these new types of hotels, which are essentially private homes, can’t offer accommodations, it defeats and undoes all of the progress we’ve made with the ADA as far as equal access is concerned,” said Ameri, the New York Times reported. “The law needs to catch up with services like Airbnb.”
Researchers suggest requiring hosts who advertise as being wheelchair accessible to follow ADA compliance. Additionally, they recommend allowing to advertise various accessibility options, such as being accessible for the blind.
“The overall results indicate that this new institutional form creates substantial challenges in ensuring equal access for people with disabilities,” the study concluded.