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Accomable creates vacation-rental market for people with disabilities

Alex Ghenis, left, shows Accomable co-founder and CEO Srin Madipalli, right, the roof as data scientist Vicky Clayton holds the door during a tour for the Chronicle August 23, 2017 in Berkeley, Calif. Ghenis is putting his apartment up on Accomable.

When Alex Ghenis moved into his Berkeley apartment, he spent thousands of dollars remodeling to accommodate his wheelchair, adding a roll-in shower, accessible shower fixtures, and hardwood floors in the living room and bedroom. In the bedroom, he set up a Hoyer Lift for transferring between his wheelchair and the bed. The landlord installed an automatic door opener at the building entrance.

“Here I am with all these resources,” said Ghenis, 29, who has used a wheelchair since a spinal-cord injury 13 years ago. “When I travel, it would be great to stay in an apartment that is just as accessible — and to open up my place for other people.”

That’s the goal of Accomable, an Airbnb-style marketplace for short-term rentals for people with disabilities. Ghenis has listed his place on Accomable to rent to other wheelchair users when he’s out of town. In turn, he’ll also use the site to seek out places to stay in other cities.

“It looks like a fantastic resource,” said Ghenis, who travels for his work as a policy and research specialist at the World Institute on Disability. “It would be good for my pocketbook if someone rents (my place) when I’m out and about.”

Accomable CEO and co-founder Srin Madipalli, 31, who uses a wheelchair because of spinal muscular atrophy, was a corporate lawyer in London with a travel bug. In 2010, he took off on a six-month trek around Europe, Africa and Asia. While he loved seeing the world, finding a place to stay was often an ordeal.

“I was constantly turning up to hotels and finding out they weren’t accessible, even if they had said they were,” he said.

During the next few years he got an MBA at Oxford, learned coding and started a travel blog, Disability Horizons, with a friend. Feedback from blog readers made him realize how many people with disabilities had trouble finding suitable lodgings while traveling. That was the impetus for founding Accomable two years ago.

Madipalli coded the website himself, and it grew organically. “I curated all the first few listings myself; I’d call up the owner and ask, ‘Can I come stay?’ and would work on coding while I was there,” he said.

He advertised on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere for hosts whose places had features such as roll-in showers, hoists and electric beds; at least one bedroom and bathroom must have step-free access. “Some hosts are disabled themselves; some have a disabled relative,” he said. While wheelchair accessibility is a particularly large concern, it also caters to travelers who are blind or deaf, as well as the elderly. “Accessibility can take many different forms,” he said.

Brittany Dejean’s family used Accomable while traveling to Europe last summer. Her dad, a quadriplegic, had not traveled abroad for years “because of how inaccessible the travel industry is and how hard it is to get information,” she said. But they trusted Accomable because it was clear that its founders had personal understanding and were committed to making sure all properties truly worked.

They booked an accessible apartment in Madrid. “That was where my dad’s soul lived; he loved it there so much and hadn’t been in two decades,” she said. “It was a phenomenal, life-changing trip that reopened this window of passion for travel that my dad had had to shut.”

As executive director of AbleThrive, a San Francisco nonprofit that provides resources for people with disabilities, Dejean is helping find hosts for Accomable.

“Accomable is truly trailblazing in its awareness of the market,” she said.

Most Accomable listings are for entire homes; there are also about 300 hotels. The initial cohort of hosts are in Europe, but Accomable is now making a push into the United States. Madipalli has been meeting with hosts in the Bay Area, along with venture capitalists. The company has about half a million dollars in initial funding.

Its screening process is rigorous, and not all properties make it. Accomable asks hosts to send photos or videos of every accessible feature in their home to verify them. It has about 1,200 listings, and 3,500 more are being vetted.

As with other marketplaces, hosts set their own rates. Accomable takes a 10 percent cut.

The increasing popularity of marketplaces like Airbnb, Uber and Lyft has concerned disabled people and their advocates, who have spent years fighting for the regulations that govern accessibility by the hotel and taxi industries. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to owner-occupied lodgings with fewer than six units for rent. Lyft and Uber let riders request wheelchair-accessible vehicles, but in general have no rules about how many such vehicles are available.

In June, a Rutgers study found that people with disabilities were often rejected by Airbnb hosts, even when the hosts said their lodgings were wheelchair accessible.

Airbnb said that the study was out of date, and that it’s taking steps to improve accessibility, including new ways for hosts to describe accessibility features, host education materials, and trained customer service. “Airbnb has a permanent team of engineers, data scientists, researchers, and designers whose sole purpose is to advance belonging and inclusion and to root out bias, including bias against people with disabilities,” it said.

Arun Sundararajan, a New York University business professor and author of the book “The Sharing Economy,” generally believes in a laissez-faire attitude toward these new companies. But in the case of disability access, he thinks the government should step in if the companies don’t do enough.

“Regulation is necessary when there’s market failure, which means, if left to its own devices, the market under-provides something society needs,” he said. “To me, the right response for Uber and Lyft would be to mandate a minimum fraction of vehicles in any given geographic area that are wheelchair accessible.”

For Airbnb, he said, it would be strategic for it to proactively invest in ensuring it has accessible listings, and verifying their claims itself, rather than relying on its reviews system to do so.

“This is a serious issue that requires a new approach,” he said. “There always will be a necessary role for government intervention to set standards and place minimums. This may require a creative new way to share responsibility between the (companies) and the government.”

Madipalli welcomes those much larger companies addressing the issue.

Long term, his goal is for Accomable to be a one-stop shop for accessible travel. “We’d be a marketplace for all these services — accommodations, specialty equipment, adaptive cars, insurance,” he said. “I want to encourage others that they can do things; that their disability shouldn’t be a barrier.”

By Carolyn Said Courtesy San Francisco Chronicle

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