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The Accessibility of the Sharing Economy

Uber, Airbnb… a share for everyone?

Uber, Airbnb… a share for everyone?

Last November Airbnb reported its acquisition of Accomable, an accessible travel startup based in London. In less than half a year, they introduced 21 new accessibility filters across the Airbnb platform to improve accessibility for their users.

Meanwhile, the ridesharing operator Uber announced its Asia-first launch of two new services last year, uberASSIST and uberACCESS, in Bangalore, India. uberASSIST provides door-to-door service for riders who need an extra hand on the journey whereas uberACCESS offers wheelchair accessible vehicles.

Airbnb and Uber are two of the biggest examples of the sharing economy. First appeared in the 2000s, the term “sharing economy” refers to the growing number of economic activities in which people are contacting each other directly through digital platforms in order to provide and obtain goods and services. This includes home-sharing services like Airbnb and ride-sharing operators like Uber.

Many like the idea of sharing economies because their options are expanded without spending more money. Some also like the feeling of home, for example, renting another “home” as holiday accommodation from Airbnb instead of booking a traditional hotel room.

However, is there really a share for everyone in this new type of economy?

Several research studies try to answer this question. Their results and conclusions seem to be rather skeptical about the accessibility of the sharing economy.

Many say no to guests with spinal cord injury

In one study, researchers have created 25 Airbnb user accounts and made close to 4000 lodging requests in the United States over a period of five and a half months in 2016. While making the requests, they assumed a fictitious identity as either blind, having cerebral palsy, dwarfism, spinal cord injury (SCI), or no disability. They wanted to find out how these different factors would affect the success of receiving a pre-approval on Airbnb – “a way for host to let guests know that their listing is available when asked about a potential reservation”.

A pleasurable moment with coffee and croissant while “Airbnb”ing? Maybe not for users with disabilities, who are more likely to be rejected among all users.

During the third month of the study, Airbnb happened to announce a new non-discrimination policy. Users were required to agree to the new policy before each sign-in attempt. However, the policy did not seem to show its effect in its first few months, at least that’s what the study showed.

It turned out that requests made by guests without disabilities have the highest preapproval rate whereas guests with SCI had the lowest. The researchers also discovered that even hosts who advertised their listing as “wheelchair accessible” were more likely to pre-approve a guest without disability than a guest with SCI.

More accessibility filters but nothing’s changed

In another study, researchers aimed “to explore the place of disabled guests in the new world of hotel and holiday accommodation shaped by the sharing economy”.

During the study, Airbnb had introduced a new “wheelchair accessible” filter on their website. With the new filter, the researchers looked for accessible accommodation for a weekend in January 2017 at Margaret River, an area of Western Australia which welcomes over one million visitors each year. Disappointingly, they did not find even one!

It is good to see that companies like Airbnb are taking the initiative to improve accessibility for everyone. However, findings of the above studies point out that it is hard to achieve inclusion on peer-to-peer platforms like Airbnb unless the government introduces interventions to facilitate full social inclusion.

Concerns about the sharing economy

The sharing economy does not seem to be promising for people with disabilities in the research results above. But what do people with disabilities think? What do they know about the sharing economy?

To find out their thoughts on the sharing economy, AARP, an American non-profit organization, conducted a research with the assistance of Turtle Bay Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. 43 people who have a disability or provide care to someone who does were interviewed through in-person focus groups, one-on-one interviews and online settings like bulletin boards.

When first asked about their knowledge of “sharing economy”, only a few participants said they had heard of the term before. But with further explanations, many said they were aware of one or more sharing economy companies, and some had even used at least one of their services.

Of those who had experience with the sharing economy or knew someone with such experience, many had positive impressions of it. They reported that the sharing economy offers higher quality of service, expanded choices, convenience and potentially lower cost. One participant said,

“It’s a way to stay inexpensive… and be able to travel and not go broke.”

When asked about their concerns over the sharing economy, some expressed their worry of being a target for a criminal because of their disability while using the sharing economy. One participant commented,

 “Because they see I’m disabled, they think they can take advantage of me.”

During the interviews, participants were also asked about their opinions on nine potential ways to improve the accessibility of the sharing economy. Advanced information like the new accessibility filters introduced in Airbnb is largely welcome.

Providers of the sharing economy need better sensitivity trainings.

In addition, participants hoped that service providers of the sharing economy can understand them as a person with disabilities. They shared that they would feel more welcomed and comfortable knowing that the service providers have received special training in working with people with disabilities.

The reality of the sharing economy in Switzerland

Reading all these studies about the sharing economy, I am curious about its situation in Switzerland. That’s why I did a casual check on Airbnb and Uber. The outcome: rather disappointing.

Personally, I welcome the new accessibility filters available on Airbnb website. I find them useful to filter out the unsuitable accommodations and to save me time and effort.

However, it is not surprising but still disappointing that the more accessibility filters I apply, the fewer options of accommodations remain. The difference is indeed so big: in my selected period in the district of Zurich, the available options go from over 300 down to 11 by only applying 3 of 27 accessibility filters. :womansurprised:

Looking for accessible holiday accommodation in Zurich: options go down from over 300 to 11 by only applying 3 of 27 accessibility filters.

How about Uber? I have never used that service before as the public transport in Switzerland caters my needs very well, even if I have to travel with a baby stroller. Many of my friends in Hong Kong have used Uber, so I supposed it would be easy for me, too. Unfortunately not. I can imagine the feelings many participants of the AARP research on the sharing economy had pointed out: being frustrated and having difficulties with actually learning to use the app and website.

In the end, I only managed to register myself via the Uber app. However, I failed to find out whether the uberASSIST and uberACCESS services are already available in Switzerland due to my difficulties and unknown failures of the app. This makes me wonder how the sharing economy will evolve. I wish to see in the near future that it becomes more accessible so that everyone can enjoy it easily and independently.

What are your experiences with the sharing economy? Are you keen on this modern economy or do you prefer traditional services like hotels and taxis?

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