076: Airbnb Accessibility Update

Good Fit Poor Fit
Good Fit Poor Fit
076: Airbnb Accessibility Update

Show Notes:

Previous Podcast: #48: Summer Vacations


#75: Accessible Communities Podcast


[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.

[00:00:23] Learn more at universaldesign.org.

[00:00:27] Welcome back to another Good Fit Poor Fit episode! Today I have Rebecca and Nate with me at the microphone. But before I jump into today’s topic, I want to mention how exciting it is that Nate just helped us reach a milestone of 75 episodes in his last podcast on accessible communities! You brought up some perspectives we haven’t dug into before, so if you haven’t had a listen to that, you should.

[00:00:56] However, as I was looking back at our archives for our episode, I was realizing how many things we’ve discussed on the topic of universal design and the variety of people that have joined us, from students to professionals. It’s just great to bring a lot of different things up in conversation to advocate for all things universal.

[00:01:17] Today we’re going to do a follow-up to an episode one of our previous occupational therapy students, Sally Kiker, did with us. Her episode, number 48: Summer Vacations, focused on two popular options of finding lodging not in a hotel setting: VRBO and Airbnb. And we talked about the ease of finding accessible options to stay in on those two popular platforms.

[00:01:45] The reason we want to revisit this topic today is because Rebecca,] actually alerted us that Airbnb made a few updates to their platform. However, before we discuss this, Nate, can you give us a recap on what Sally shared in her previous episode?

[00:02:02] Nate: I sure can, and I first want to say thank you again for having me on for one more podcast episode as I’m finishing up in the coming weeks. It’s been a great experience to join this podcast as we chat about real-world challenges and barriers to accessibility that individuals in communities across the nation face every single day. But as you mentioned, Sarah, this episode is an update to an episode done about a year and a half ago, about accessibility and lodging options during travel.

[00:02:28] That original episode came at a very fitting time. It was just prior to summer vacation of 2021, one summer removed from the global pandemic that kept people in their homes for the duration of the previous summer.

[00:02:39] It was slated to be one of the larger travel summers in recent years. However, as Sally’s research showed, it was near impossible for a large group of individuals to find a place accommodating their needs. This group I am talking about is those with physical disabilities impacting their ability to move around spaces easily.

[00:02:57] It’s important to note that this group that I mentioned, those with physical mobility disabilities, is not just exclusive to those in wheelchairs. It can include older adults who use walkers or canes, children on crutches, those with incoordination and balance issues, and even those with low vision. Thinking about that entire group of travelers as a whole, that is a large number of people who have a difficult time finding a place that works for them.

[00:03:20] At the time of recording that episode, Sally had looked into information on what was available to users of Airbnb, simulating what the experience of searching for lodging would be like if you or someone in your party had a mobility disability.

[00:03:33] As noted in that show, the search produced some harsh realities that exist when it comes to finding accessible lodging during travel. The first thing noted was the lack of search filters that exist within Airbnb’s site. Search filters are those options, often located at the top, that allow you to narrow down your search to only places that fit a certain criteria.

[00:03:52] However, accessibility was not one of those options. The options at the time only included wide doorways or no step entry. Sure, these options are helpful, but in reality, how wide are those doorways and is there really no step to get in? Furthermore, these filters do not result in any true measurements being listed.

[00:04:11] As a result, users have to scan through the pictures to look at the spaces, adding extra time and effort just to book a place to stay. In the end, individuals are often left to make a judgment call based on a simple picture if they’re going to be able to enter and access this space.

[00:04:25] That is just crazy, and I can only imagine the nerves surrounding that decision!

[00:04:29] While on the topic of pictures, it was also found that oftentimes, when displaying the place to stay, renters want to make their place look appealing. Therefore, they upload images that are aesthetically pleasing to gain more interest from renters.

[00:04:41] While users want to see the condition of the rental, those with mobility disabilities absolutely need to see the features inside the home that they’ll have to encounter. Scanning through the options available, some renters did include photos of accessible features like grab bars, shower chairs, and other durable medical equipment, and applause to them.

[00:04:59] However, just think of the added time it takes to scan every single photo of every single listing to see if there are features that will make the spaces accessible for you. This adds lots of valuable time to your search.

[00:05:11] That podcast left us wanting more access for those with disabilities. Final thoughts we generated from that episode included the need for more true pictures of the space, rather than aesthetically pleasing ones, adding in true measurements, 3D or virtual tours, and lastly, accessibility for those with all disabilities, not just those with mobility impairments.

[00:05:31] So, fast forward about 18 months to another busy travel time, right about now. As the winter holiday season is fastly approaching, travel rates are at an all-time high. People from near and far gather to spend precious family time with one another, and everyone needs a place to stay.

[00:05:47] Maybe you elect to lodge with Airbnb because there’s just no more guest beds in the relative’s place, or you just need a break from your in-laws. Whatever the reason may be, there is good news on the horizon. Individuals with disabilities who have had to make unnecessary settlements all too often in the past are now finally seeing a small light at the end of the tunnel.

[00:06:05] Sarah: Yes, thank you, Nate. We did uncover some frustrating pieces to the search process for listings on both Airbnb and VRBO that kept us wanting more details. So when Rebecca alerted me of this new update on Airbnb, I could hear the excitement in your voice, Rebecca, I mean, in your text.

[00:06:26] We have had our fair share of time spent on Airbnb looking at pictures and calling owners to ask about doorway widths, and we even had a situation where the accessible bathroom in the home wasn’t even pictured. So when we went to stay in the unit because it seemed doable, we got set up in the room that was, more or less a compromise, and my mother-in-law went into her bathroom and was like, “Hey guys, I have a roll-in shower in my bedroom and bathroom!”

[00:06:56] Why that was not pictured online was beyond me. Anyway.

[00:07:00] Rebecca, can you give us a quick update on some of the changes that Airbnb made to their site and how you think this will impact people looking for places to stay across the country? While I have no idea if they listened to our previous episode, do you think they took anything in our previous episode into consideration?

[00:07:21] Rebecca: I absolutely can give you the low-down on the update, Sarah, and I hope they listened to our previous episode! But really I must say, when I saw the article finding out about these new updates, I flashed back to that episode and thought, this is a dream come true! So I’m happy to share the following updates.

[00:07:39] The most exciting thing overall is really just that people who post their homes on Airbnb not only have the opportunity to showcase their accessible features, such as zero threshold entrances that are good for wheelchairs, as well as heavy suitcases, in addition to some others as well.

[00:07:57] I also want to note that I really appreciate the way that Airbnb presents this to its hosts, not as a burden or something specialized for people with disabilities, but as a true selling point. Even noting that things like those step-free entrances work for everyone, like people using strollers, as well as people using mobility devices. They’re not saying it explicitly, but Airbnb, you are speaking our universal design language!

[00:08:24] So, if and when a host wants to highlight their accessible abode, they’re now required to use photos and specifically demonstrate these features in their listing. The host submits photos of each accessibility feature, and then it is confirmed. The host can even tag which rooms have the accessible features, like for example, if one bathroom did have grab bars and another didn’t, the host could note that in the listing. Though this is great, I do kind of wonder, how is Airbnb vetting those submissions? Who is determining what images are truly accessible?

[00:09:01] And, do you guys want some help from us here at the Universal Design Project? Am I right, Sarah?

[00:09:07] Sarah: Here, here. Exactly! That was one of the things I was wondering too, Rebecca, and as Nate and our other student, Alee, can attest to, we’ve done our fair share this semester looking at photos and modifying them with functional features to create some educational content. While we’ve been doing that, we’ve been discussing what’s accessible, what’s not, and wishing that whoever took that photo that we were looking at, had it zoomed out or zoomed in, or had maybe taken it from a different angle, so we could see what’s beyond the features we are observing.

[00:09:41] Rebecca, I wonder if Airbnb potentially has their own accessibility team. When I did dig into some of the content on how to get all of those important pieces into the photo, I was pretty impressed at some of the details they had mentioned for guidance in taking the photos, like when taking a picture of the doorway, they would like you to get the floor and the surrounding area, versus a higher angle, basically taking that picture through the middle of the doorway, like some people may have done before.

[00:10:11] It’s those little details that give people browsing through homes lots of important information. If hosts take good pictures of their environment and one that’s actually accessible, they could get more visitors staying the night, than if they took a photo at a bad angle, or left it out completely, just like that accessible bathroom situation I described earlier.

[00:10:33] When families go on vacation, especially big families, oftentimes their choice is dependent on that one family member hunting for accessible features that makes the decision. It’s not just individual family units that travel together; sometimes it’s multiple generations, which in turn, encompasses a wide variety of needs.

[00:10:52] Rebecca: Yep, that is such a good point, Sarah! And how frustrating must it be when you’re going on vacation and you have a whole big group of people and you have to make decisions based off of things that are really often not portrayed well in listings?

[00:11:08] But another thing that I wanna note that Airbnb is doing a pretty good job of, is promoting an overall inclusive environment within their platform. They have suggestions for hosts about asking guests about their needs or any necessary accommodations, as well as how the host can prepare their space if they know the guests have certain requirements for the space to be functional. I like that they’re encouraging hosts to have these conversations, and I would also encourage them, again, if you’re listening Airbnb, to consider taking it a step further and specifically calling out disability and disabled travelers in as many words as opposed to dancing around disability with phrases like, “guests with accessibility needs”.

[00:11:51] Spoiler alert, we all have accessibility needs, disabled or not today, let’s call it like it is Airbnb. As we said a few episodes ago, disability is not a bad word! It’s a part of the human experience.

[00:12:06] But so anyway, what do all of these features mean from a traveler or a guest perspective? I think we’ll have to wait a bit to see exactly, since these features are pretty new.

[00:12:16] In fact, when I shared the article with Sarah, I said, “Sarah, you and Scott are gonna have to check it out and see if it’s useful!” Are the images accurate in depicting the accessible features? What else would you guys need to be sure that your family could comfortably stay in the space?

[00:12:31] Sarah, have you had a chance to poke around at all? I know you haven’t, unfortunately, had a vacation to compare listings to real properties, but have you checked out any listings that look like they might be functional?

[00:12:42] Sarah: Yeah, I’ve looked around a little bit and maybe we should take this on the road and go see a lot of listings just to test it out! But I have noticed, that there are better pictures and there is less scrolling to find homes that at least have accessible entrances and bathrooms. I did see some pretty cool properties too, like yurts, but I haven’t dug too far to see if some of those little details like bed heights and what different areas of the home offer in regards to kitchen access, or being able to get out onto the deck or the porch, because those things are really important for accessibility as well.

[00:13:19] As I was poking around on their site, another thing that I was excited to see was a suggestion for homeowners in regards to sharing about the surrounding area. It’s not just the home that you are staying in on vacation, but it’s deciding what you’re going to do while you’re there.

[00:13:37] Just like we’ve talked about in previous episodes, and Nate, you highlighted this so well in your Accessible Communities episode, when you can easily care for your needs in your home, you’re more likely to go out into the community and do things. Yet when visiting a new community, how would you know if the surrounding community, attractions, stores, restaurants, venues that you wanna visit are actually welcoming to your abilities?

[00:14:02] As a host on Airbnb, aka an expert in your local area, you can help provide a great resource, not only to your favorite places, but crafted in a way that also highlights accessible locations in the community. This is a great opportunity here to create an enjoyable experience all around.

[00:14:21] Nate, can you share more about this and the benefits?

[00:14:24] Nate: Yes, I can add here, Sarah!

[00:14:25] So, what comes to mind when you think of vacation? We all have a different paradise in our minds, depending on where we like to go and what we like to do. But all-in-all, vacation is about going away and doing something. Traveling allows us to escape from realities in our day-to-day lives, bringing us peace, joy, and comfort.

[00:14:40] Whether it’s relaxing on your favorite beach, hiking the world’s tallest mountains, having a spa day by the pool, exploring the downtown scenes, you name it. Whatever it may be, everyone travels to experience something. Yet this element is a factor that is often overlooked.

[00:14:56] If traveling with someone with a mobility disability, planning a trip can have numerous extra steps that are important to consider. Sometimes you’re choosing activities or destinations based on accessible options. Sometimes, this results in making settlements on where you can go. Remember the piece that I had shared about the amount of added time it takes? Yep, that’s still relevant here.

[00:15:15] All too often, folks book a vacation, are excited to go to their fully accessible lodge, but then realize there’s no accessible places to go. This can really put a damper on a trip. Therefore, it is equally as important to look for activities surrounding your rental that are fully accessible and facilitate participation, as it is to look at lodging that is fully accessible. Luckily, Airbnb has a feature that can help with this that is already built in.

[00:15:40] A feature called a guidebook is an option that renters have to include in their rental listing. Airbnb defines the guidebook as an opportunity to give guests curated info that highlights your hospitality and your local community offerings.

[00:15:53] Basically, it’s a list of all the amenities that exist around the lodge. What a convenience this is, as all the local amenities are listed with the rental, and no further searching needs to be done. The only issue, the guidebook is customized by the renter.

[00:16:07] Therefore, renters who lack knowledge and accessible attractions or overlook it, don’t provide a fair opportunity to all of who may stay there. Maybe in the future, as Airbnb adopts more accessible options, they can require each guidebook to include accessible attractions too.

[00:16:21] Rebecca: Yes, I love that suggestion and I again, hope they hear you and get on it! But I actually think that that really reflects a broader issue in the travel industry in that, whenever you’re doing research about traveling, it’s pretty hard to find information about accessibility features. It’s pretty few and far between, so I think you could open up a whole other can of worms there.

[00:16:46] Again, I think the steps that Airbnb has taken so far are outstanding, and they absolutely set them apart in the world of travel for people with disabilities. But I also think there’s an opportunity to grow, like we’ve said. In looking at accessible features that a host can select, I see a lot that relates to creating environments that are inclusive for people who have mobility disabilities, physical disabilities, like step-free entrances and showers, for example. But as we always talk about, there are millions of design features that support all kinds of functional needs for people who are and are not currently disabled, and who have visible and non-visible disabilities.

[00:17:25] So this is absolutely a step in the right direction, and I hope that other travel companies will follow suit. But I also hope that we can have another episode like this in a year or so and talk about all the further improvements and enhancements that enable all people to travel and see the world in the way they want to.

[00:17:42] Sarah: I agree. I’d love to see even more guidance from Airbnb about other helpful features homeowners can add to their homes to increase the universal accessibility beyond mobility. This could be in the form of lighting, color contrast, flooring choices, and types of supplies or kitchen tools provided in the home, just to name a few.

[00:18:03] But you know what? Homeowners, if you’re looking to add more functional features into your home, we’ve got some great educational content that’s really close to being finished, right Nate? I mean, we are so close. And we have some great suggestions for modifications and adaptations that would make your guests super happy and even get excited about how you, quote-unquote, “thought about all the little details” to make their stay more enjoyable. But, I digress.

[00:18:33] I do agree with both of you and that, what they’ve done so far, is a huge improvement, but there’s always more that can be done to make these homes away from home feel as welcoming as possible.

[00:18:44] If you are traveling this holiday season and happen to use these search features on Airbnb, let us know what you think! Are you able to find more options in your search that meet your needs?

[00:18:55] It’s always great to be here with you to share about UD. I hope you have a lovely holiday season with friends and family. Have a good day!

[00:19:05] 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].

[00:19:30] Thanks for fitting us into your day!


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