We hope this acquisition results in real changes to the Airbnb platform to not only reduce discrimination against travelers with disabilities, but also to verify details about accessible listings and make them much clearer.
As part of the acquisition, co-founder and CEO Srin Madipalli will move from London to San Francisco, where he will assume a new role: accessibility program and product manager for Airbnb. Five of Accomable’s seven-person team will remain in London where they will work in Airbnb’s London office.
Accomable’s site, which helps users find accessible rentals and hotels, will “wind down in the coming months” and “we will be integrating our know-how and expertise across the Airbnb platform,” Madipalli told Skift.
Airbnb said “we will work to include Accomable’s listings in more than 60 countries on Airbnb.”
Madipalli, a former corporate lawyer, and co-founder Martyn Sibley, started Accomable without any intention of building a formal company. Both co-founders have Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and together they started Accomable as “something cool and interesting that would be helpful for disabled people and their families,” Madipalli said.
“I just posted it on social media, and shared it with friends,” he said. “The initial reaction was that people said this was really cool, and then we thought, maybe there’s an actual business there.”
Accomable has more than 1,100 listings in 60 countries, while Airbnb has more than 4 million listings in more than 191 countries.
But what makes Accomable different from Airbnb is that each of its listings is verified by the Accommable team to ensure that it really is as accessible as it claims to be.
“We have far greater amount of detail on each listing with regard to accessibility, and what equipment is there,” Madipalli said. “We spent a lot of time verifying that accuracy of information. As a wheelchair user, that was one of my pain points when trying to find accessible accommodations. Any time someone wants to make an accessibility claim on their listing, they have to show a photo or video to back that up on our site. If you say you have a grab rail by the toilet, you have to show me a picture or video of that.”
Accomable’s financial model is slightly different from Airbnb’s: Instead of taking a cut from both hosts and guests as Airbnb does, Accomable only takes commission from hosts.
An Airbnb Acquisition that Addresses Accessibility
The move to acquire the London-based company was likely prompted by Airbnb’s desire to address criticisms that its platform neglects the needs of disabled travelers.
And as Skift has covered previously, travel can be an especially treacherous and anxiety-inducing experience for travelers with disabilities.
Earlier this year, a Rutgers University study found that Airbnb hosts are more likely to reject travelers with disabilities than people with no disabilities.
Disability-rights advocates have also criticized Airbnb going as far back as 2014 for not enforcing Americans with Disabilities Act compliance for its listings in the U.S.
“This is their [Airbnb’s] solution to that,” said Peter Slatin, founder and president of Slatin Group, a company that helps businesses better understand how to deliver customer services to people with special needs.
Slatin added, “But Accomable doesn’t have anything to do with service,” so he wonders if Airbnb will, at some point, consider whether it looks toward adding services that better assist travelers with disabilities.
In response to criticism of Airbnb’s handling of discrimination taking place on its platform, not only for travelers with disabilities but for other travelers as well, the company instituted a new non-discrimination policy last fall.
Of the Rutgers University study, Madipalli said, “I think it’s what happened in the past; I don’t know the specifics of it. That’s something for Airbnb to comment on — specifically on that study. Personally, for me, going forward, it’s what we can do to make the experience as amazing as possible for travelers. I know a lot of work has gone into the discrimination issue. For me, it’s more about how do we build things going forward than how things were in the past.”
He added, “For me, it’s less about the criticism — every company gets criticized about something. But it’s more about what are they doing to solve the problem? By wanting to acquire us, it seems they [Airbnb] genuinely want to solve this problem, and ensure that everyone has an amazing experience. I hope this is something that will also resonate with other companies in tech to start thinking more about helping their disabled customers use their services even better.”
But will the Accomable acquisition signal real change at Airbnb or is it window-dressing to appease critics?
Slatin said, “I hope that this [acquisition] indicates a real expression of Airbnb’s acceptance of the importance and strength of the disability travel marketplace and not just a relatively low-cost way to wallpaper over some previous bad press and relationships.”
Plans Going Forward
Airbnb said that Madipalli and his team will further the company’s efforts on making the “Airbnb experience better for everyone” but the company also admits it has a long way to go before it achieves the levels of accessibility that it wants to have for all travelers.
That’s a smart move, said Alice Wong, a disabled activist and founder of the Disability Visibility Project. She said, “The first thing Airbnb can do is to hire disabled people and have their expertise and perspectives in all of their departments, not just accessibility or customer/host relations.” She also emphasized the importance of providing educational tools for hosts.
Today, travelers with disabilities can only search Airbnb for “wheelchair accessible” listings — which aren’t necessarily verified to actually be wheelchair accessible.
However, Airbnb says “we have been working on new ‘accessibility needs’ checklists for hosts,” adding that, “While Srin and his team haven’t been involved in the development of these new tools, we’re confident that they will make our community more accessible for everyone and we’re going to work to make them even stronger in the future.”
Airbnb says the new features allow hosts to note whether their listings have “step-free entry to rooms, entryways that are wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, and more.”
The features are already available in Web searches, and will soon roll out on Airbnb’s Apple and Android apps, too.
Airbnb noted that an audit of its site and app by Level Access (formerly known as SSB Bart) alerted the company to things it needs to do to make its channels more accessible. “Those audits made clear that we have work to do, and while we’re nowhere near done, we have made progress,” the company noted.
Airbnb said that in the past year it’s assembled “a dedicated team of engineers and designers whose sole focus is to help ensure our community is accessible for everyone.”
Wong said, “People with disabilities should be in the lead on all of these areas at Airbnb, whether it’s working in public relations, verification of listings, response to customer complaints and feedback, and host education. I’m not naive to expect all homes listed to be accessible, but a reasonable attempt to provide accurate information and for open dialogue between hosts and guests can go a long way.”
Other things the company has done to make its platform more accessible include changes to the colors, labels, and text on its site and app; establishing training seminars and educational initiatives for its engineers and designers; and partnering with Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired on research studies.
As for what he plans to do in his new role at Airbnb, Madipalli said, “Once I get started there, the actual specifics will be clarified in the weeks and months to come. Essentially, I want to make sure that anyone with a disability of any kind can use the Airbnb platform — to enable anyone to belong anywhere.”
He added, “I don’t want to just jump in there and assume this is how things will be done. I want to reach out to different community groups and get feedback. Airbnb has also launched a whole host of new education tools for hosts. With accessibility, it’s not just Airbnb. Accessibility, in general, as a market, has so many different sectors where things need to be better. I know this as a disabled consumer myself. We’re really delighted that Airbnb is making a big statement and step in this area.”
And as for Wong, she hopes more travel and hospitality companies not only embrace accessibility going forward but make it a core part of their businesses.
“Accessibility is part of hospitality,” Wong said. “This is not a radical idea. It should be an organic part of the travel and hospitality industry. This is part of a broader global culture of access that all companies should aspire to that’s in alignment with their values. I doubt my suggestion of mandatory host education will fly, but corporations need to be accountable and take on these challenges despite the costs and risks to their profits. Isn’t this what a socially responsible corporate citizen should do if they really want to address discrimination and improve their organization systemically?”
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Photo credit: Accomable CEO Srin Madipalli in San Francisco. Airbnb announced it is acquiring Madipalli's company for an undisclosed sum. Accomable