‘Belong Anywhere’

Travel

Srin Madipalli, Airbnb and the Quest to ‘Belong Anywhere’

Srin Madipalli originally studied to be a research scientist focusing on genetics, before retraining as a corporate lawyer, only to discover he didn’t want to be one … and so went back to school to get an MBA from Oxford. He taught himself how to code and started and sold his first startup company before he turned 35. It’s the kind of resume Hollywood script writers usually save for the heroic lead who has been tasked with solving the insolvable problem and saving humanity. Maybe someday Madipalli will devise the cure to stave off a zombie apocalypse or a way to stop climate change, but for now his sights are focused on improving accessible travel, making it easier for people with disabilities to see the world and changing the way the world sees them.

Madipalli is the head of Airbnb’s accessibility team and arguably the highest profile and most visible face of accessible travel currently on wheels. With a valuation of $35 billion, over 150 million users and more than 6 million global listings, the San Francisco-based company is the unquestioned giant of the peer-to-peer rental industry. With listings in 191 countries and an explosive growth rate, Airbnb is uniquely positioned to shape the experiences of travelers and hosts around the world. For travelers with disabilities, Airbnb could be a facilitator and an advocate, opening doors to new destinations and new cultures, or simply another obstacle.

Somewhat ironically, Madipalli’s ascent to his current perch began four years ago when he and a friend, both born with spinal muscular atrophy, founded a company to address the failure of the emerging vacation rental industry to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities.

Based in London, they called their company Accomable, and spent the next two and a half years devising ways to make accessible peer-to-peer property rentals more accessible. In November 2017, Airbnb acquired Accomable and brought Madipalli on to manage its accessibility efforts.

 

Seated in the atrium of Airbnb’s massive headquarters in San Francisco’s rapidly-changing SoMa district, Madipalli looks like someone who has found his place. With a zip-up hoodie featuring the company logo and his seemingly omnipresent smile, Madipalli exudes the laid-back vibe the building has been carefully crafted to encourage. When I ask if he feels any pressure with his role and the heightened visibility it brings, he is unfazed.

“I think the pressure comes purely from within myself,” he says. “This has been my life’s work. This is something I have dedicated years to.

 I started this to solve a problem for some of my closest friends, my family. I want to do justice for and help a community that I’m that I am a part of and very close to.”

Traveling Roots

In the last year alone, Madipalli, 33, has been all over Asia, Europe and the United States as part of his work. He estimates that he spends over a quarter of his time away from his San Francisco apartment and has a wealth of knowledge about where to stay and what to do for accessible fun around the world. But travel wasn’t a big part of his life growing up as a power chair user in London. “When I was younger, we hardly ever went anywhere,” he says. “Every now and then we would do the odd holiday, but it was such a struggle for mom and dad to do everything. It was complicated.”

As he got older and started managing his own support workers, Madipalli’s horizons expanded, but it wasn’t until the end of his short stint as a lawyer, around the end of 2010, that he got “the travel bug.”

Four months roaming around Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia and the U.S. hooked him on the allure of travel, but also reinforced the need for a better way. “I would turn up to a hotel and they did not offer the access they promised,” he says. “So many times I couldn’t find any information.”

Madipalli returned to London to get his MBA and started learning to code. Looking to test his skills on a project he’d personally find useful, he and a friend set out to build something that would make travel easier. That effort became Accomable. “It was ultimately born from us asking, ‘What were the challenges that we faced?’” he says.

The site went way beyond simply allowing hosts to check whether a residence was wheelchair accessible. Instead, it allowed them to check off specific accommodations, like roll-in showers, ramps and steps. It also required photo or video documentation of listed accessible features. Madipalli helped raise a reported $500,000 to support a growing staff and a rapidly expanding userbase that topped 1,000 listings by the fall of 2017.

When Airbnb moved to acquire Accomable, Madipalli saw it as the natural next step. “We started off wanting to create what an ideal travel platform looks like if you had an accessibility need, and at Accomable, we got that started,” he says. “We had proof of concept and some early users, but at Airbnb we can take that to a much more exciting, global level. We have a much larger team, many more resources, and we can actually take our know-how and expertise to a more scaled and global platform.”

Srin Madipalli and NM Editor Ian Ruder see eye-to-eye on peer-to-peer property rentals.

A Discrimination Problem

The victory for Madipalli and his team could also be seen as a shrewd move for the Silicon Valley giant as it struggled with questions about discrimination. In 2016, published accounts of hosts turning away, and in some instances confronting, guests based on race were backed up by a Harvard Business School study. The study found users with distinctly African-American names were roughly 16% less likely to be accepted as guests than those with distinctly white names.

Airbnb responded to specific incidents with bans and other tactics, but made headlines in June 2016 by hiring Laura Murphy, the former head of the legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C., to lead a review of its discrimination policies. 

Her report, released in September, led to a number of policy changes, including a new nondiscrimination policy that specifically addressed disability with nine prohibited host actions.

In her opening, Murphy wrote that the company’s genuine commitment to improvement had removed the skepticism she had before signing on: “Airbnb is engaging in frank and sustained conversations about bias on its platform. More noteworthily, however, Airbnb is putting in place powerful systemic changes to greatly reduce the opportunity for hosts and guests to engage in conscious or unconscious discriminatory conduct.” She also noted that CEO Brian Chesky told her, “Airbnb will never be able to fulfill its mission without seriously combating discrimination on its platform.”

Eight months later, in June 2017, another study, this one from researchers at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, found Airbnb users with disabilities were less likely to be preapproved and more likely to be rejected outright. “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,” wrote Mason Ameri, the lead researcher.

The study found that only 25% of guests with a spinal cord injury were preapproved, compared with 75% of guests without disabilities. 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%). The authors pointed to Airbnb’s odd relationship with the ADA (see ADA, below) as part of the problem and urged the company to bolster its education and outreach efforts.

Airbnb officially acquired Accomable just over five months after that report was released. Madipalli understands how outsiders could see acquiring a disability-focused company led by a wheelchair user to be a public relations gesture but, like Murphy, is confident the company’s intentions are true. 

“At the end of the day Airbnb would not have acquired me — would not have acquired Accomable — unless there was that senior management buy-in,” he says. “I wouldn’t have agreed to the acquisition unless I could look people in the eye and say we are actually making genuine effort here.”

Airbnb clearly sees Madipalli as an asset, too. “Srin is a force of nature whose leadership has made travel more inclusive and accessible for everyone,” says Airbnb head of public policy and public affairs Chris Lehane. “Airbnb’s mission is to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere and Srin’s in-home accessibility work has been critical when it comes to creating the opportunity for our guests to be able to belong everywhere.”

Nanako Era, Cameron Wu, Lydia Marouf and Madipalli (left to right) pose in front of a commemoration of Airbnb’s acquisition of Accomable on a timeline of the company’s history.

The Team

Madipalli’s efforts include the outreach and education the Rutgers report called for but go well beyond that. As the product manager at the head of Airbnb’s In-Home Accessibility Team, Madipalli has 16 staff spread across engineering, research and sales. While five Accomable employees transitioned to Airbnb, one of them left and three work from London, leaving Madipalli as the only original employee on this side of the pond.

His new group is young, diverse and eager to make Airbnb as accessible as possible. They also clearly enjoy working with Madipalli. “Srin’s passion is the number one factor of our team,” says Nanako Era, a researcher on the team.

“I’ve been able to learn a lot from him … the way that the team grows and how passionate he is about accessibility and travel,” adds Lydia Marouf, strategy and operations manager.

His team is working to improve Airbnb’s interface from both the host and guest sides, while also growing the number of accessible options the company has. The most obvious examples of their impact are changes that follow in Accomable’s footsteps — like replacing the “wheelchair accessible” checkbox with 27 different filters, allowing hosts to better represent their offerings and making it easier for guests to find needed features, such as roll-in showers or grab bars.

They are also working to better understand the needs and concerns of customers around disability. “For current hosts, we’ve found that a lot of people have their own interpretation of, for example, what step-free access means. They think that if there’s a 4-inch threshold, that’s still fine,” says Era. “For people with disabilities who are interested in hosting, there are a lot of concerns. … For example, they have a lot of medical equipment at their home, and they don’t want that to be damaged by guests coming over. [And] if they start getting income, does that affect their Social Security benefits?”

Not all those questions have easy answers, but Madipalli’s team is working to address them. They have crafted extensive educational materials to teach hosts how to properly photograph their homes to best help guests with disabilities, and they plan to require hosts to provide photos or videos of any options they select. “Our approach is, first get better information, and once you have better information, then present it in a more discoverable way,” says Madipalli.

As part of educating existing and potential customers, Madipalli and other team members have embarked on a global educational tour, holding events with disability groups, government and community leaders, and anyone interested in accessible travel. He has been to over 30 cities and eight countries since he joined Airbnb. “For a lot of people, this was the very first time that they were aware of the issue of accessibility,” says Madipalli. “In one place, the translator had to stop me and say, ‘Look Srin, I need a few minutes to explain what the word accessibility actually means,’ because there isn’t even a direct translation.”

Opportunity of a Lifetime

That disparity speaks to the larger and less quantifiable side of Madipalli’s new role: serving as a global ambassador of disability and laying the groundwork for a future where travel is more accessible. Building improved filters, to help people share their properties and make it easier for people with disabilities to find the appropriate accommodations is great, but if large portions of the world don’t see travelers with disabilities as viable guests or hold prejudices against them, it’s all for naught.

As people with disabilities are a large and growing segment of the travel market, it makes sense Airbnb would want to have a healthy footprint in the market. “If you do the business right, that in itself will help people travel,” says Madipalli. “And if people can travel, that in itself is what creates the wider social benefit.”

Madipalli points to the infrastructure Brazil built to prepare for the 2016 Rio Olympics and Paralympics as an example. “Loads of businesses had started putting ramps in because of the Paralympics and that in itself got more people in the local area out and about,” he says.

At this point, the majority of Airbnb’s efforts to effect social change are mostly limited to education. When asked about a possible rewards program, or some means to incentivize hosts to use the accessible filters or make their residences more accessible, Madipalli said Airbnb is considering its options but suggested the filters offered their own reward. “Adding this stuff is going to help you get more bookings,” he says.  “And I think that is going to be an important driver.”

Helping hosts get more bookings is good for the bottom line, but if Madipalli is to truly help Airbnb achieve it’s stated goal of creating a world where people “belong anywhere” he is going to have his work cut out for him. If anything, the challenge of what he described as “a once in a lifetime opportunity” seems to drive him. How committed Airbnb is to opening doors for people with disabilities remains to be seen, but all indicators are that Madipalli’s intentions are genuine.

Prior to joining Airbnb, Madipalli founded a closed Facebook group, Accessible Travel Club, to discuss accessible travel. Even with his relentless travel and work schedule, he still remains very active, posing and answering questions with the nearly 7,000 active members. He makes it clear that this is a side effort, not part of his work at Airbnb, but his commitment and passion for helping remove the obstacles around accessible travel are obvious.

How and whether Madipalli is able to channel that excitement and use his myriad skills to impact Airbnb will be interesting to watch. He says he envisions his current work as a three-to-four-year plan, but he knows new challenges will pop up. “I’m hoping that we can be a more vocal advocate for a positive message for disability,” he says. “I think people often feel that disability is treated as an afterthought, and actually seeing that the person leading this work at such a large brand like Airbnb is somebody with a disability is important.”

What About the ADA?

If you’re wondering why ADA enforcers aren’t cracking down on repeated instances of Airbnb hosts discriminating against people with disabilities, well, it’s not so simple. Like fellow peer-to-peer giants, Uber and Lyft, Airbnb exists in a murky realm between public and private spaces that nondiscrimination laws have not caught up to yet. The ADA covers public accommodations, like hotels and some larger Airbnb hosts, but it doesn’t apply to private homes or lodgings that are owner-occupied with fewer than six units available for rent.

In a press release accompanying the Rutgers study, the researcher who oversaw the study wrote: “The growth of the so-called sharing economy can benefit many people, but it is largely an unregulated gray area. 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.”

Room for Improvement

As a frequent traveler and regular user of peer-to-peer rental services, Carole Zoom is exactly the type of stakeholder Madipalli and Airbnb are looking to appease. Zoom, who has covered travel for NEW MOBILITY, guesses she has used Airbnb and its competitors — VRBO, Homestay and Home Exchange — 30-40 times.

Carole Zoom

She knows and thinks highly of Madipalli but is reserving judgment on Airbnb’s commitment to actual reform. “They’ve made a commitment to Srin and to the Accomable model,” she says. “Personally, at this stage, I feel like it’s more about financial gain for them than it is about true nondiscrimination.”

One bad experience with Airbnb raised her awareness of the many issues the company had around disability access. After a long day of travel and hours setting up her medical equipment in a studio she had booked for a month through Airbnb, Zoom, who has muscular dystrophy, and her husband went to bed.

After midnight, the building manager pounded on their door and informed them, “You have 10 minutes to get out of here!” It turned out the building did not allow sublets. In the middle of the night, in a city she didn’t live in, Zoom was being told to pack up her ventilator, travel gear and scooter and find an accessible place to stay. Eventually, police showed up and all parties agreed Zoom and her husband would leave by 10 a.m., but Airbnb’s response highlighted some of the company’s oversights and problems.

The “wheelchair accessible” rental Airbnb suggested as a replacement turned out to be inaccessible and illegal. Zoom says Airbnb urged her to take the booking anyway because they had no other accessible listings. To add insult, when Zoom decided to cancel the tentative booking, the host gave her a negative review, downgrading her overall rating. Still, she says she will continue to use the service.

“There are a lot of great things that can come from using Airbnb’s lodging” she says. “But unfortunately, I had about the worst experience you can have short of being kidnapped in the middle of the night by the police. … The emergency backstop when something terrible happens is not in place, and there’s nobody to respond.”

Zoom has a number of ideas to improve Airbnb’s services, including establishing better connections with independent living centers and local disability service providers and locking down a plan of action for incidents like the one she experienced. She also hopes the company focuses on developing some form of enforcement to hold hosts accountable.

“There’s got to be some piece to what they’re going to put out for people with disabilities, for us to really trust that they are in this with us,” she says. “Right now, it feels like they’re in this with us only insofar as they can make money off us.”

How Does It Work?

1. Go to Airbnb.com or download the app and create an account.
2. Search for your destination.
3. To find accessibility options in the app, click “Filters.” On the web, scroll down and click “Accessibility.”
4. Choose the property that works for you.

Written by Ian Ruder of New Mobility and photos by Clara Rice

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