[00:00:00] Sarah: You’re Listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. A podcast that explores the interaction between people, design, and activity. Good Fit Poor Fit is part of The Universal Design Project, a nonprofit organization with a vision for every community across the USA to have a surplus of homes and opportunities for social participation that are universally and financially accessible.
[00:00:27] Sarah: Learn more at universaldesign.org.
[00:00:31 ]Rebecca: Hello. Hello listeners. Welcome back to another episode with one of our guests. Co-hosts our new students, Sally Kiker. Let’s dive right in. And actually that is a pun because on today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about one of the most beloved events of the summertime and warmer seasons, and that is vacation. So Sally, tell us what’s on your mind today; what got you thinking to inspire this episode?
[00:00:57] Sally: Well, Rebecca, as the weather gets warmer and summer approaches, I have been thinking about heading to the beach. Especially after missing out on true summer fun last year due to COVID, I have been eager to head to the Eastern shore and spend a long weekend soaking up the sun. So today we will shift focus from the home to homes away from home in a discussion about vacation rentals.
[00:01:22] Sarah: I am super excited about this episode today. And of course, having more opportunities for vacation this summer, I’m really excited about as well. I know many people who have disabilities and love to travel, but finding a place to stay can be challenging for figuring out housing to make sure you can take care of all your basic needs while you’re away, plus make sure you can find fun, accessible things to do in the community as well.
[00:01:49] Sally: That’s a great point, Sarah. It’s not just about finding a home that suits your needs, but you also have to consider the activities that are available in that community. Maybe you find a perfect beach house to rent for the weekend that accommodates your needs, but it’s located near a beach with no accessibility features; an that would be a bummer if your main goal of the trip was to enjoy the beach.
[00:02:10] Rebecca: I actually think about this a lot when I go to the beach or when I used to pre-COVID times, because beaches are pretty challenging in terms of accessibility. So I really like that you are pointing out the fact that it’s not just where you’re going to be sleeping and staying, but also the enjoyable leisure activities that you want to do while you’re away. Good point.
[00:02:33] Sally: So to really dig into the topic of summer rentals, I chose to conduct a casual experiment to explore the availability of accessible homes when it comes to renting for vacation purposes. When searching for rental homes, I decided to stick with one location, Virginia Beach, based on Sarah and Scott’s positive experience as Virginia Beach visitors. Sarah and I recently discussed the accessible boardwalk at this location, and how ramps from the boardwalk to the beach are located at every street along the boardwalk, which allowed Sarah and Scott to really enjoy the ocean views for miles. The boardwalk itself is easily navigable by a wheelchair, crutches, strollers, and other mobility devices.
[00:03:15] Sarah: Yes, we really appreciated how we could just stroll along the boardwalk. It’s super wide and it’s paved, people are riding bikes and walking and rolling, so it’s really great. And then, we could easily get down to the sand level via a ramp. And then that ramp rolled into a long pathway through the soft sand, and then got us down to the wet sand. We really felt like we were there with everyone else on the beach and not just in our own little special section. Plus along the beach front, there’s lots of restaurants, live music, entertainment, and shops. But of course, after all the fun in the sun, you have to go somewhere to sleep. So Sally, how exactly did you come across these accessible homes in this fun little experiment you did?
[00:04:01] Sally: When searching for accessible beach homes, I explored a couple of websites that are widely used to book vacation rentals. In this discussion, I will focus on two sites, including Airbnb and Vrbo. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Vrbo, it is spelled V-R-B-O and stands for “vacation rental by owner.” Airbnb and Vrbo are online marketplaces for lodging, primarily home stays for vacation rentals. People can list their houses on these sites, where they include pictures and a description of the house and its amenities.
[00:04:33] So I first navigated through Airbnb’s site to look for a rental home in Virginia Beach, and when conducting the search, I pretended as though I was an individual who uses a wheelchair to simulate the experience of trying to find wheelchair accessible options. Airbnb has a filter feature where you can refine your search to include amenities or features to suit your needs and preferences. So after choosing your location, you can select more filters and then you can click more options where there’s an option to select various accessibility needs.
[00:05:06] When selecting accessibility needs, I chose a wide entrance, which includes doorways that are 32 inches or greater, as recommended by the ADA, and I also selected the options for no stairs and no steps, as this is also what a wheelchair user would have selected. After choosing the appropriate filters, I found one single home available in Virginia Beach. When analyzing the accessibility features of this home from the images and the descriptions, I could see the step-free paths and entrances as well as the wide doorways. The pictures even revealed more accessibility features like grab bars and a shower chair.
[00:05:45] Sarah: Well, that option actually sounded pretty functional, but unfortunately I think what you found, isn’t surprising with my experience and is also true in many other cities across the US. There really aren’t a lot of accessible options in the house rental space for vacations. Yet, for those who do have accessibility built into their vacation rental, those pictures are so important to really analyze if the space would work well. How frustrating would it be to plan your entire vacation, go on this long trip and roll up at 8:00 PM and realize you can’t get into the bathroom because the door is too small?
[00:06:24] I know that many people take pictures of their Airbnb to capture the aesthetics and the charm of the homes, but sometimes if they could just pan that camera out a little bit more to show the doorways, the entrances and the floor space available in the big areas like bathroom and kitchen, it really helps those checking out the space to determine if it’s doable for accessibility needs.
[00:06:49] We often talk about a home we stayed at in Asheville, North Carolina that had excellent photographs, and because those pictures were amazing, we knew that we wouldn’t have to worry about the accessibility headaches when we got there. And we were right! It was a really great place to stay.
[00:07:05] Rebecca: Sarah I love that you brought that up because I wonder how many people are posting their homes on sites like Airbnb and Vrbo and eliminating certain people from being able to use their homes that maybe are really functional and accessible for people. And just those simple panning out in the photos could open them up to so many more customers and clients staying in their home. So if there are any of you renters out there, listen up.
[00:07:35] Sally: Yes, it is so great that Airbnb requires their hosts to provide photos of every accessibility feature in their home, along with the description of the space, because the pictures are really what gives you an idea of what you’re working with. And on that note I think Airbnb has done a great job at trying to be more accessible. Airbnb actually bought a small startup called Accomable and Accomable was a travel listing site based out of London that focused on disability friendly travel listings. So, after buying this startup and merging with them, they have added accessibility features and filters to make searching for accommodations easier, especially for those with mobility limitations.
[00:08:24] But based on the pictures for the Virginia Beach listing that I was just talking about, it seems as though this house was accessible for a wheelchair user, but it’s unfortunate that there was only one option to choose from. And additionally, there were no measurements to indicate how big the doorways actually were, so renters just have to trust that they are in fact, 32 inches wide. And more measurements would also be helpful to denote counter, table, or bed heights to determine if the space is suitable for people with specific functional needs.
[00:08:56]Having more universally designed homes would allow for people to have the luxury of picking the perfect vacation rental that suits the needs of each and every guest. However, we understand it’s unrealistic to expect an explosion of universally designed homes just in time for summer or for that matter, even within the next few years. But for now, it is at least helpful to have these accessibility filter options on rental sites, like Airbnb, to make it easier to track down a functional beach house for you and your travel buddies. Lots of pictures and more measurements will also help more people find the perfect vacation home.
[00:09:33] Rebecca: Well said, Sally, I think that these companies need to listen to your advice. Those are definitely some solid ideas. Maybe you should write to them and see if they’ll bite. Just an idea. I’m curious about other sites too. So you’ve talked about Airbnb and you mentioned VRBO. So what did your research teach you there?
[00:09:53] Sally: So the VRBO filters are a bit different from the ones on the Airbnb site. VRBO only has two accessibility options, including elevator and wheelchair accessible. So, again, I pretended as though I was a wheelchair user, trying to find a beach house in Virginia Beach, so I selected both accessibility features, elevator and wheelchair accessible. With both features selected a total of 90 places appeared. I searched again, but selected only the wheelchair accessible feature and unselected elevator, just to compare, and found 114 potential places to stay in the same location.
[00:10:30] Right off the bat, I noticed that there seems to be a lot more options here than on Airbnb. However, after browsing through a few of these options, I quickly noticed that VRBO has a very, very vague definition of wheelchair accessible. Some rentals included a beach wheelchair with inflatable wheels for the sand, some had a handicap lift available at the pool, or maybe a ramp to access the building, but there was no consistency when looking through the options. For example, I found one wheelchair accessible home that had an elevator and no steps into the front door, but in both bathrooms, the shower doors looked much narrower than the minimum 32 inches wide and had very large thresholds to step over. And bathing and self-care are very important occupations that we all do every day, and if you can’t do these necessary tasks in your environment, then the home becomes a space that is not functional.
[00:11:28] However, the host of this listing did include a lot of photos, which helped me determine that this home may not fit the bill for all wheelchair users. Some of the rental listings on VRBO only had five pictures; and with limited pictures, a lack of description of the space, no measurements and no true definition of wheelchair accessibility, it was difficult to determine if the homes were indeed functional for wheelchair users, or others who use mobility devices. Although it seems that VRBO has more accessible rentals available than Airbnb, it actually requires a lot more digging to find what you need on this site because of the lack of consistency in the wheelchair accessible filter feature.
[00:12:10] Sarah: I think what you’re finding here is that people aren’t quite sure what accessible and universal access really mean as they relate to the people who are looking to rent out the home. Plus if the home only has one or two accessible features, it isn’t really helpful for people searching for those features to find that there are only a few. People that have impairments are counting on there being more functionality within the entire home, to do their tasks, like you said, Sally, and it can be disappointing when they find out that the only accessible features are no steps to get inside and lever handles on the doors.
[00:12:46] We used VRBO to rent out a home with our family at the beach this summer–we actually haven’t gone yet, so I have to tell you how that ends up–and it was kind of frustrating. The pictures weren’t that great, and my mother-in-law actually had to get in touch with the realtor to go in and measure the doorways of the bathroom. If those measurements were already in there, it would make everyone’s lives easier. We could determine from our online search, if the home would work and we wouldn’t have to go through all of these hoops with a realtor to see if it would even be a possibility to book in the first place.
[00:13:19] Unfortunately, I think when looking at many beach homes, many of them have an elevator in there for convenience, and it’s not necessarily for accessibility. Even when it gets flagged in your filters, then it’s like a treasure hunt to check all of the places to see if the doors are wide, if there’s enough floor space to turn around, and that you can easily get in and out of the house. Then when you find a home that you think may work, you have to do some more investigation around the community to see what other attractions you’re close to, and if that’s easily accessed as well.
[00:13:51] Sally: I love that you said it’s like a treasure hunt because finding a functional home to rent, especially if you are someone with physical impairments or mobility limitations, requires some digging. This process can be very tedious and time consuming as I have seen through this little experiment, so it would be really great if sites like Airbnb and VRBO included more specifics to guide their hosts to create more informative listings that include things like multiple wide angle pictures and measurements.
[00:14:21] Rebecca: That’s a really good point. We’re definitely getting at something important here. Thinking about vacations though, I feel like I also have to bring up the concept of hotels. Not everyone is comfortable using sites like Airbnb and VRBO. Hotels are still a pretty popular choice. What about accessibility features in that realm, Sally?
[00:14:41] Sally: That’s a great question, Rebecca, and I’m really glad you brought up the topic of hotels. Hotels are a wonderful option because they are public spaces that are required to abide by ADA guidelines. Rental homes from sites like Airbnb and VRBO are private homes, which are often not designed to meet the needs of all guests, which can make your search a bit more difficult.
[00:15:01] However, there are many benefits to renting a home rather than staying in a hotel. A rental home is more private and secluded, which is what many people are looking for when they vacation. Rental homes can also accommodate more people which is beneficial for those traveling with a large family or group of friends. Also, renting a home for a large group is often much cheaper than spending money on individual hotel rooms.
[00:15:24] Sarah: Yeah, I think this is an excellent point to bring up. Of course, people can go stay at a hotel where you might have more luck with accessibility in a room there, but oftentimes the accessibility there can be a hit or miss depending on the hotel and the age of the hotel as well. But there is something fun about getting a big house with the family and going on vacation together. Knowing that this can be an option to bring along someone in the family with a disability is refreshing. Maybe it’s a tradition that the whole family goes to the lake and maybe grandma can’t do stairs very well. You don’t want to have to stop going on your yearly family vacation, just because of steps or leave grandma at home.
[00:16:07] Like you said, it’s often more cost-effective to split a home together and to have a kitchen to make your meals and save a little money there too. Plus there’s room for the family to play games together in the big living room and work on that ever lingering puzzle in the corner that everyone pops over to throughout the week to work on. I think the thing I’m trying to get at here is that having options is helpful, and even more vacation rental options in the market would allow more families to enjoy time together with reduced worry of accessibility barriers.
[00:16:39] Sally: Yeah, I totally agree that having more options would be so helpful and beneficial to everyone considering renting a home for the summer. So if you’re someone out there who has a rental home, or is thinking about listing your home as a rental, you might consider adding a few items to make your home more accessible, to a greater number of potential clients or renters.
[00:16:59] This might include adding more lighting to low lit areas of the house and to pathways leading up to the house. And it’s not always about adding–you may also consider minimizing. Think about the layout of your furniture and try to rearrange it to accommodate for large mobility devices to move through the space. And even try removing clutter as much as possible to avoid tripping hazards and limit the risk of falls.
[00:17:22] Of course, if you’re building a home from the ground up or thinking about renovating, there are many more opportunities to make your home inclusive, accessible, and universally designed. Structural elements may include doorways of at least 32 inches wide, although 36 inches would be even better, reinforcement or blocking in the bathroom walls for grab bar installation, and space under sinks and counters for wheelchairs to roll under.
[00:17:46] Sarah: These are definitely great examples, Sally, and I’d also add that big bedrooms are really helpful too. And sometimes when choosing a bed in these rooms that can often be way too high and making sure there’s room on both sides of the bed for mobility equipment is always helpful. That king sized bed may seem luxurious, but it can be too cramped for some. If you want to keep that king size bed, make sure you make those bedrooms big.
[00:18:12] By adding in design features like these and many more plus taking really good pictures and measurements of these features, you are really helping people searching for a spot to rest their head on vacation and see the places that can make or break their stay. Also, if you want to go the extra mile, consider offering up the use of a shower bench or seat, so people don’t have to bring their own. And be available as the person who’s listing the home to help answer questions regarding accessibility needs.
[00:18:42] Rebecca: All good pointers, Sarah, if you and Scott ever want to become rental property owners, I think you would probably have the number one place in the country for accessibility. So keep that on your radar.
[00:18:55] Sarah: Thanks Rebecca.
[00:18:56] Rebecca: Of course. And Sally, thank you for bringing this topic up. Not only is it timely as we all ponder our potential summer vacations, but also it’s so important because traveling and seeing the world are valued occupations for so many people. And there’s really no reason anyone should be limited in their participation in such activities due to a disability.
[00:19:16] Sally: Yes, and so much of traveling, at least for me, is about socializing and spending that quality time with the ones I’m with, which is of course, another extremely valuable occupation. It’s so important for families, friend groups, or community groups who are traveling together to have the opportunity to find an affordable place, to stay that accommodates all members of the group so no one is left behind, you know, like grandma on that summer lake vacation that Sarah was talking about.
[00:19:44] So by participating in this little experiment, I’ve come to a few important conclusions about finding an accessible vacation rental. First and foremost, there is always a need for more accessibility in our world. Sites like Airbnb and VRBO might consider adding even more accessibility features to their sites to make it easier to search for and find a house that suits the needs of each guest. Including more pictures, measurements, or having the option of a virtual tour would help people better understand and evaluate the space. Additionally, I have realized that just because something is listed as accessible doesn’t mean it actually is. It can take much more investigation and exploration to truly determine if a space is accessible.
[00:20:30] Rental homes are a great example of why universal design is so important and would be so valuable to all people. Universally designed homes can accommodate family gatherings, people who use mobility aids and people all across the lifespan. More availability of universally designed homes would make vacationing easier for everyone, regardless of ability.
[00:20:51] Rebecca: So true. You’re certainly getting a handle on this universal design stuff, Sally. This is a wonderful perspective. Well done. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. Happy, warmer weather, happy vacationing to our listeners, and we will talk to you again really soon.
[00:21:10] Sarah: Thanks for listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. I’m your host Sarah Pruett, Program Director and Occupational Therapist at The Universal Design Project. Learn more about our work at universaldesign.org, and find more episodes and links to subscribe at goodfitpoorfit.com If you have questions or topics you’d like to discuss, email us at [email protected]
[00:21:35] Thanks for fitting us into your day!