Airbnb hosts routinely reject guests with disabilities, sometimes when they have even advertised their homes as wheelchair accessible, according to a new study that adds to growing concerns about discrimination in the sharing economy.
A Rutgers University study of nearly 4,000 requests for lodging on the home-sharing platform found that guests with blindness, cerebral palsy, dwarfism and spinal cord injury were refused at rates higher than people without disabilities. In some instances, hosts who claimed that their homes were accessible were also more likely to approve guests without disabilities, according to the research published Friday.
The report raises new questions about the ethics of Airbnb’s business model, following the #AirbnbWhileBlack scandal that dogged the company last year, centered on revelations that African American guests were denied access at disproportionately high rates. While traditional hotels must abide by anti-discrimination laws, startups such as Airbnb have been able to skirt longstanding regulations by arguing that they are technology companies and platforms that aren’t liable for the actions of their users.
“What the sharing economy is doing is practically undoing all the progress … where public accommodations are not necessarily accessible to people with disabilities who have a right to these spaces,” said Mason Ameri, lead author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.
As part of a randomized field test, the researchers created fake Airbnb accounts and made requests for homes across the country, disclosing various disabilities to potential hosts. While the approval rate was 75% for guests without disabilities, the rates dropped for those who mentioned their conditions – 61% for dwarfism, 50% for blindness, 43% for cerebral palsy and 25% for spinal cord injury.
Researchers also uncovered insensitive and offensive responses to people with disabilities. Writing to a traveler who uses a guide dog for blindness, a host asked: “Does the dog drive?” according to the study. Another said the guest would have to pay an additional $100 for a guide dog, which violates Airbnb’s policy that hosts may not charge more for guests with disabilities. Some hosts told guests in wheelchairs that they could come only if they had someone who could carry them up stairs.
The study further found that hosts who advertised wheelchair accessible homes approved 80% of guests without a disability, but only 60% of travelers with spinal cord injuries, raising further questions about the potential biases of Airbnb users.
In the sharing economy, Ameri said, “We’re collaborating with people who are similar to ourselves. If you’re able-bodied, you’re likely going to accommodate people who are similar.”