How the 'sharing economy' leaves disabled Americans behind
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In July, the Americans with Disabilities Act observed its 27th anniversary. We should be proud of the progress our country has made in the last quarter century in expanding the circle of opportunity — economic, social and educational — for all Americans regardless of their physical or mental disability. Yet there are still pernicious corners of our economy and society where disabled Americans are shut out from the basic protections designed to ensure that most American of ideals: equality under the law.

As a disabled native Washingtonian and member of the clergy, and as community leader who has dedicated my life to fighting for civil liberties and inclusion, I believe that discrimination has no place in our nation’s capital. We should welcome everyone who comes to our city, regardless of whether they are disabled or have special needs. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the legal thing to do.

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Imagine showing up to your travel destination after paying hundreds of dollars for a room, only to find that — despite assurances to the contrary — you cannot access your accommodations. When I relied on a wheelchair, this would have been my circumstance, and Airbnb could not have been a reliable option for me.

Even more troubling, imagine being denied accommodations due to the fact that you are one of the 56 million Americans who lives with a disability. A recent independent study from Rutgers University found that Airbnb hosts are more likely to reject disabled travelers. Travelers with no disability were rejected in 17 percent of reservation requests made by the Rutgers researchers, yet travelers with blindness, cerebral palsy or a spinal cord injury were rejected 34, 41 and 60 percent of the time respectively.

These are the disturbing trends of discrimination that Americans with disabilities face in the so-called “sharing economy” when traveling to the nation’s capital and across the country.

According to the Department of Justice, “hotels, motels, inns and other places of lodging designed or constructed after January 26, 1993, must be usable by persons with disabilities.” Unfortunately, on platforms like Airbnb, landlords — despite running what effectively amount to full-time hotels, including in buildings built within the last 24 years — are not held accountable for ensuring that laws protecting Americans with disabilities are followed.

Legislation currently under consideration by the City Council would be an important first step in bringing these commercial operators into the light and compelling them to play by the same rules as everyone else. To do nothing, or, worse, to shield these operators from oversight, would be wrong, unfair and discriminatory.

Airbnb, valued at more than $30 billion, thinks it is above even the basic responsibility to hold its users accountable when they flout the law. But with reports showing that the company is increasingly reliant on commercial operators listing multiple properties year-round, just like a hotel, most would agree that it should be held to the same standard as every other lodging company.

It is not hard to see why Airbnb protects these operators and refuses to crack down on illegal hotels run through its website. A large portion of Airbnb’s revenue — 32 percent, or $1.8 billion nationwide — comes from multi-unit operators who rent out two or more entire home units. This is the fastest growing segment of Airbnb’s business: The revenue derived from these multi-unit operators in 13 of the country’s largest markets rose 89 percent year-over-year.

Unscrupulous real estate speculators have a standard playbook. They buy up properties, rent them out like a hotel and dodge regulations required by federal, state and local laws.

For nearly 27 years lodging businesses of all sizes have complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Why shouldn’t those on Airbnb be held to the same standard?

We need to fight these discriminatory practices one city at a time. Hopefully the D.C. City Council does its part here in the nation’s capital.

Dr. Unnia Pettus, PhD, is clergy leader, community activist and disability advocate from Washington, D.C.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.