PISCATAWAY, N.J. (June 2, 2017) – In a randomized field experiment of close to 4,000 requests for Airbnb rentals nationwide, people with disabilities were less likely to be preapproved and more likely to be rejected outright, researchers at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations revealed today. The findings raise questions about the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the accessibility of services in the sharing economy.
“People with disabilities have a history of social exclusion,” said Lead Researcher Mason Ameri, Ph.D., a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “The rise of Internet-based platforms for some services threatens to perpetuate and possibly increase their exclusion. Many of the newly-available services are not fully accessible and may create more opportunities for both intentional and unintentional discrimination.”
Ameri and a team of student volunteers created 25 Airbnb user accounts and made 3,847 lodging requests in the 48 continental U.S. states between June 1 and November 15, 2016. For each request, the student assumed a fictitious identity and self-disclosed either blindness, cerebral palsy, dwarfism, spinal cord injury, or no disability. The preapproval rate was:
- 75% for guests without disabilities
- 61% for guests with dwarfism
- 50% for guests with blindness
- 43% for guests with cerebral palsy
- 25% for guests with spinal cord injury
Even hosts who advertised their listing as “wheelchair accessible” were more likely to approve a guest without a disability (80%) than a guest with a spinal cord injury (60%).
Host responses did not vary significantly following Airbnb’s announcement of a new non-discrimination policy. The terms officially took effect on November 1, but users have been required, since September 8, to agree to the new policy prior to each sign in attempt.
“Airbnb’s new policy follows the basic ideas of the ADA in prohibiting discrimination and requiring reasonable accommodations, but the policy did not seem to have an effect in its first few months,” said Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations Distinguished Professor Douglas Kruse, who oversaw the study. “Airbnb should take extra steps to educate hosts, ensure host compliance, and partner with disability organizations to ensure that the needs of travelers with disabilities are well reflected in their policies.”
While many Airbnb hosts expressed sympathy and willingness to accommodate guests with disabilities, others reacted with insensitivity. One host, responding to a traveler with blindness who uses a guide dog, asked, “Does the dog drive?” Another host asked if a guest with a spinal cord injury had a fellow traveler who could carry him up the stairs.
The study illuminates an area in which the law has not caught up with technology, the researchers said. The ADA applies to hotels and some Airbnb hosts, but not to lodgings that are owner-occupied with fewer than 6 units available for rent. Like ride-sharing apps Uber and Lyft, Airbnb falls into a new realm of activity that blurs the lines between public and private space and could undermine the principle of equal access to goods and services.
“The growth of the so-called sharing economy can benefit many people, but it is largely an unregulated gray area,” said Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations Professor Lisa Schur, who also oversaw the study. “These new platforms may allow individual hosts to avoid anti-discrimination laws, which may lead to more exclusion and discrimination against people with disabilities. We need a broader public policy discussion of how to increase accessibility and expand lodging options for travelers with disabilities.”
The study was co-authored by Cornell University Assistant Professor Sean Rogers and funded by the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. Ameri, the lead researcher, previously teamed up with Professors Kruse and Schur on a study that used fake cover letters to expose hiring discrimination against people with disabilities.
Steve Flamisch, Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations
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