This post was last updated on February 21st, 2018

Airbnb is a service that allows users to rent out a room, apartment or entire home to guests via an online application. Generally, it’s been viewed as helpful platform that gives people options outside of traditional lodging when they need to stay overnight in a city or town away from their homes.

But some advocates for people with disabilities have wondered whether the service has the capacity to curb discrimination among hosts. Using company background, data and specific discrimination cases, this resource explores the issue of disability discrimination on Airbnb and offers solutions for how the service can improve for people with disabilities.

Disability Discrimination on Airbnb: How Bad Is It Really?

3,847
Lodging Requests

Between June and November of 2016, researchers made these lodging requests with profiles they created of people with four types of disabilities that may require accommodations:

control-profile

Overall, the findings strongly suggested bias by Airbnb hosts against people with these disabilities.

The pre-approval rate was 75% for travelers without disabilities, compared to:

61%
for travelers with
dwarfism
50%
for travelers with
blindness
43%
for travelers with
cerebral palsy
25%
for travelers with
spinal cord injury

Rejection or No Response Rates

16.8%
of guests without
disabilities
34.4%
of guests with
blindness
40.7%
of guests with
cerebral palsy
59.8%
of guests with
spinal cord injury

Accommodation Rates

33.2%
for travelers with
dwarfism
30%
for travelers with
blindness
19.9%
for travelers with
cerebral palsy
3.5%
for travelers with
spinal cord injury

Understanding Airbnb

Just as Uber and Lyft don’t own cars, Airbnb doesn’t own any lodging. It’s a service that acts as a broker between people who want lodging and people who own property or rent in a specific location. It’s basically an alternative to a hotel—typically you rent a room in someone’s home or an entire property for a predesignated amount of time.

Airbnb by the Numbers

$4.4B+
raised to date
(source)
$31B
approximate worth
(source)
Headquartered in San Francisco
   1M
people rent every night
(source)
200M
total guests
(source)
  191
countries and 65,000
cities (source)

In the digital space, companies like these are thriving, because, for a lot of consumers, being able to easily access a service is becoming more valuable than the service itself. If you own the digital infrastructure that connects consumers with services they want, it’s almost better than owning the inventory to supply these services yourself. First of all, it’s more scalable, and there’s less accountability, less overhead, less maintenance and fewer worries for business owners.

But some businesses that exist in the on-demand economy have problems that traditional companies do not. A lot of these problems are centered around quality control, both for services and the workers providing them. Just as your experience with one Uber or Lyft driver doesn’t inform the next, there is a lot of variability in quality on Airbnb.

The Airbnb Hosting Process

To better understand the framework of this service, it’s important to note how the process actually works for the hosts.

Who Hosts on Airbnb?

Generally, there are a few different reasons people host:
People looking to monetize available space here and there.
People who use it regularly as a second source of income.
People building an Airbnb business with either one or multiple properties dedicated to renting.
There are also newer options, like hosting an “experience" or organizing hosting for your whole neighborhood.

How Hosting Works

For the most part, hosts set the guidelines for renters. Hosts set up what’s more or less a profile page for their listings. This includes the location, how many people it can accommodate, amenities (cable, internet, parking, etc.), photos or videos of the space, pricing and more.

This is the general process for hosts:

Component

Hosts can determine what is and isn’t acceptable in the space. This allows them to set clear guidelines for things like smoking, pets, parties, check-in and check-out times, etc. Hosts are also able to cancel a reservation as long as it is not within seven days of the scheduled date, but Airbnb has fees and penalties in place to cut down on host cancellations.

Hosts usually respond to rental requests within 24 hours, but can choose to accept or decline a reservation. To determine this, hosts can view a renter’s profile page, where they will see a front-facing photo of the guest (as required by Airbnb), a description of the guest (written by the guest) and the guest’s booking history, including reviews.

So, How Does Discrimination Come Into Play?

While Airbnb is a highly respected global business, there has been much discussion concerning Airbnb users and discrimination.

To this point, the issue has largely revolved around racial discrimination.

There have been numerous issues of racial discrimination on Airbnb, most notably toward people of color. In 2016, this issue gained prominence on social media with the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack, which guests would use to describe negative experiences with Airbnb that they suggested were related to race.

The belief that racial bias may come into play on Airbnb does hold credibility, especially in light of the service’s policy that all guests must include photos of themselves on their profiles.

A 2016 NPR feature covered the issue well, and included this quote from Quirtina Crittenden, an Airbnb guest:

"The hosts would always come up with excuses like, 'oh, someone actually just booked it' or 'oh, some of my regulars are coming in town, and they're going to stay there,'" Crittenden said. "But I got suspicious when I would check back like days later and see that those dates were still available."

The issue has been continuously covered in the press. In one instance, a host in Big Bear, California was fined $5000 and required to take a college-level Asian American studies course after canceling a woman’s reservation minutes before she was scheduled to arrive. The host made derogatory comments about the woman’s race in the cancellation message. The penalty was set by the California Department of Fair Employment, which operates under an agreement with Airbnb that allows the department to regulate and penalize hosts who discriminate on the platform.

The penalty, issued in the summer of 2017, was the first to be given under the agreement.

This is certainly not the only instance of racial discrimination on Airbnb. A study done by Harvard Business School’s Michael Luca and his colleagues in 2016 produced data that suggested across-the-board racial discrimination. Among the findings was that guests with distinctively African American names were 16 percent less likely than guests with distinctively white names to be accommodated, all else being equal.

Airbnb has made strides to cut down on racial discrimination, like partnering with the NAACP and introducing the Airbnb Community Commitment, but many believe it’s not enough.

Now, let’s take a look at potential host bias for people with disabilities.

Airbnb Discrimination & People with Disabilities

The example of racial discrimination illustrates how Airbnb host bias can come into play for disabled people as well.

The issue was actually the focus of a May 2017 study led by Mason Ameri, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. It uncovered data suggesting that the rise of the on-demand economy may be creating more opportunities for both intentional and unintentional discrimination against disabled people. This idea comes from the ambiguity as to whether companies like Airbnb are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The expansion of such services potentially creates a new realm of unregulated activity that blurs the boundaries between public and private space and may undermine the principle of equal access to goods and services,” the abstract for the study states.

This is the basic outline for the study:

  • Researchers randomized 3,847 lodging requests made between June and November, 2016.
  • They created profiles of people with four types of disabilities that may require accommodations: blindness, cerebral palsy, dwarfism, and spinal cord injury, as well as a control profile.

The pre-approval rate was 75% for travelers without disabilities, compared to:

61%
for travelers with
dwarfism
50%
for travelers with
blindness
43%
for travelers with
cerebral palsy
25%
for travelers with
spinal cord injury

Note: Part of this difference in pre-approvals is accounted for by hosts who did not pre-approve, but had inquiries for the travelers. This ranged from about 16% to 19% of the host responses, depending on the type of disability of the guest booking.

This data implies that disabled guests are questioned more than non-disabled people when attempting to book an Airbnb reservation, which is not a positive experience. Overall, the rejection rate for potential guests with blindness, cerebral palsy and spinal cord injury was more than double that of people without disabilities.

Rejection or No Response Rates

16.8%
of guests without
disabilities
34.4%
of guests with
blindness
40.7%
of guests with
cerebral palsy
59.8%
of guests with
spinal cord injury

Accommodation Rates

About a third of hosts said they would be able to accommodate guests with blindness and dwarfism, but for people with other disabilities, those figures plummeted.

33.2%
for travelers with
dwarfism
30%
for travelers with
blindness
19.9%
for travelers with
cerebral palsy
3.5%
for travelers with
spinal cord injury

How Hosts Responded

The study notes that some hosts inquired about how to make their space more accessible or referred the rental requests to other, more accessible Airbnb rentals nearby. However, the study also outlines some of the negative responses, including these toward a guest with blindness who uses a guide dog:

"Does the dog drive?"
“Um. That's a new one. How do you drive?”
“How could you see my listing if you are blind?"

Others turned down guests without much explanation, (“I don’t think my house will work for your needs,” as one example), and many addressed physical accessibility problems. Here are some of the quotes:

“Our place has a very narrow and circular stairway, so it would be too difficult for you” (in response to guest with cerebral palsy)
“Unfortunately our home was designed for my 6'4 grandpa and I'm afraid many of our amenities are positioned higher up” (in response to guest with dwarfism)
“Honestly I would have to check with our insurance company regarding whether we are covered to host guests with disabilities” (in response to guest with cerebral palsy)
“Unfortunately we don’t have a wheelchair ramp and every entrance has 3 steps. Unless you have someone who is coming with you and could carry you up those 3 steps I don’t think our place is the right fit for you” (in response to guest with spinal cord injury)

There were some positive notes for people with disabilities.

Though the data does not look good for people with disabilities that affect walking and movement, there is an option for hosts to denote their listing as a “wheelchair accessible” space.

Out of the 3,847 reservation requests made, 252 (6.6%) were labeled as wheelchair accessible. Hosts with these listings were generally more likely to pre-approve guests with disabilities that often require wheelchair use, including spinal cord injury and cerebral palsy.

Impressions from Researchers Regarding Airbnb & People with Disabilities

Researchers raised questions as to whether the ADA should apply to all Airbnb rentals, and not just some. The ADA is designed to cover all hotels, but often the requirements fall short for Airbnb, as it does not apply to owner-occupied lodgings that have fewer than six units available to rent.

“While many Airbnb hosts expressed great sympathy and willingness to consider accommodating guests with disabilities, the overall results indicate that this new institutional form creates substantial challenges in ensuring equal access for people with disabilities.”
— May 2017 Study

While the sharing economy is generally viewed as a positive, convenient thing across modern culture, the benefits are not equal for people with disabilities.

Airbnb Nondiscrimination Policy

It is worth mentioning that Airbnb does have an extensive nondiscrimination policy in place. It specifically lays out requirements for hosts regarding discrimination.

Included in them are that hosts cannot decline guests based on race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status. It also makes specific mention of people with disabilities, saying hosts may not decline anyone based on “perceived or actual disability,” or “substitute their own judgement about whether a unit meets the needs of a guest with a disability,” among other things.

The issue is that having a policy is not enough. Whether unintentional or intentional, it’s clear that there does exist some bias on Airbnb when it comes to people with disabilities.

What Can Airbnb Do To Accommodate Disabled People?

There is so much Airbnb can do to limit or do away completely with discrimination toward people with disabilities. For one, it can adopt a similar policy to what exists in California to prevent discrimination in all areas it operates. A government organization can be brought on to help with regulation and penalties for hosts who actively discriminate against people with disabilities.

It can also set new requirements for host training that will educate them on how to better accommodate guests from all backgrounds and walks of life. This kind of education should be mandatory for all new and existing hosts.

Removing the requirement for profile photos would decrease the intentional discrimination on Airbnb. This would be beneficial for people who have been victims of racial discrimination, but would also limit discrimination for some people with disabilities.

What Supporters of People with Disabilities Can Do

If you’re disabled or support people with disabilities in the United States, you can help advocate for legislative changes that will include Airbnb hosts under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This would set requirements for host lodgings that would make them more amenable for people with disabilities and broaden the lodging options for all people, not just people who are living without disabilities.

People who want to avoid lodging discrimination against people with disabilities can also use other services until Airbnb is able to find a way to make its platform free of bias, like ADA-accessible hotels.

Airbnb did recently make a step in the right direction by acquiring Accomable, a similar platform that specializes in helping people with disabilities find accessible short-term rentals. Airbnb plans to incorporate Accomable listings into its services, but there’s no indication of how soon this will happen or how it will look when it does.

Hopefully, unlike the the non-discrimination policy, this change will make a larger impact on eliminating discrimination on Airbnb.