9 Airbnb catering to guests with disabilities – before, during and after COVID-19

Sarah MacInnes, Department of Tourism, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland, Australia

Melanie Randle, Faculty of Business and Law, University of Wollongong, Australia

Sara Dolnicar, Department of Tourism, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland, Australia

People with disabilities face a wide range of challenges in their everyday lives, including when they go on vacation. Identifying suitable tourist accommodation is one of the aspects of travel planning which is of critical importance to ensure a safe and enjoyable stay. Yet, it is not easy for people with disabilities to determine whether short-term accommodation is suitable for them. Airbnb has been publicly criticised because it is not obliged to comply with the same minimum accessibility standards as licensed, commercial accommodation providers. Airbnb made a number of improvements just before COVID-19 further complicated the situation.


Please cite as: MacInnes, S., Randle, M. and Dolnicar, S. (2021) Airbnb catering to guests with disabilities – before, during and after COVID-19, in S. Dolnicar (Ed.) Airbnb before, during and after COVID-19, University of Queensland DOI: https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.14204552


Tourist accommodation challenges faced by people with disabilities

Traditionally, disability was viewed as a problem that made an individual ‘abnormal’, requiring fixing by medical practitioners (People with Disability Australia, 2018). This medical model of disability focuses on what people with disabilities cannot be or cannot do. In contrast, the social model of disability (Oliver, 1983; Oliver, 2013) views disability as a socially constructed phenomenon, resulting from a person with a disability interacting with their environment. The environment is characterised by physical, informational and attitudinal barriers. The social model of disability focuses on reducing these barriers to enable, rather than disable, people to participate equally and fully in society (People with Disability Australia, 2018; Randle & Dolnicar, 2019).

Physical barriers are features of the natural or built environment. In the tourist accommodation context, they can include narrow doorways, uneven floor surfaces or steps, insufficiently lit areas, inappropriate chairs, beds, tables or counter heights (Figueiredo et al., 2012; McKercher & Darcy, 2018). Such physical barriers most impact people in wheelchairs whose mobility in tourist accommodation depends on specific space requirements (Randle & Dolnicar, 2019). Some properties may report being wheelchair accessible because they do not have steps, however, doorways may not be wide enough to fit a wheelchair through, or the countertops and tables may be unsuitable heights, or the bathroom facilities may not be reachable from a sitting position. In this sense the property may be accessible but not necessarily functional for people in wheelchairs. Other issues related to accessibility include uneven surfaces that may present tripping hazards for people with walking devices, slippery surfaces in wet areas or unreachable kitchen appliances or cupboards.

Issues of accessibility also impact other types of disabilities. People with vision impairments may require tactile aids to help them find their way around the accommodation or understand emergency evacuation procedures, oversized light switches or remote controls, or specialised lighting (Packer et al., 2007; Small et al., 2012). People with hearing disabilities may require visual fire alarms, televisions with captioning capability, or appliances with visual rather than audible alerts (Randle & Dolnicar, 2019).

Informational barriers prevent people with disabilities from being able to access required information or communicate effectively. People with disabilities report having low confidence in the information provided by tourism and accommodation operators and feeling the need to double check the information provided to ensure it is accurate (Packer et al., 2007). Accurate information is essential to people with disabilities. They must ensure that accommodation is suitable for them and their very specific needs. Inaccurate information, which results in sub-optimal travel arrangements, can result in negative consequences such as increased stress and anxiety, reduced enjoyment, cancelled bookings, increased cost, and having to make last minute arrangements to try to find suitable accommodation alternatives (Packer et al., 2007; Eichhorn et al., 2008; Pagan, 2012).

Informational barriers can be particularly problematic for people with sensory disabilities because of the limited ways in which some information is presented. People with visual disabilities face barriers because accommodation providers rely primarily on online written information to describe accommodation features. People with visual disabilities may also experience barriers during their travel if information is written or illustrated, which may result in them having to ask someone else to read information out to them (Small et al., 2012). People with hearing disabilities face barriers whenever information is only presented audibly, for example, public transport announcements or digital tour guides at cultural attractions.

Attitudinal barriers relate to assumptions made about people with disabilities that prevent them from participating fully in society. Empirical evidence suggests that people with disabilities experience this kind of discrimination in tourism-related contexts (Pagan, 2012; McKercher & Darcy, 2018). Negative attitudes and discrimination often result from ignorance about what people with disabilities can and cannot do, and the extent to which they deserve to participate fully in society (McKercher & Darcy, 2018). Widespread ignorance about people with disabilities is arguably one of the greatest barriers they face, because it contributes to them being ignored, overlooked, or viewed as second-class citizens (Darcy & Pegg, 2011; Small et al., 2012; McKercher & Darcy, 2018).

Ignorance can result in a range of negative behaviours, such as assuming people with disabilities are incapable of everyday tasks, making inappropriate and insulting comments, offering or providing inappropriate assistance, and in some cases, displaying overtly hostile treatment (Darcy & Pegg, 2011; Small et al., 2012). As a consequence, some people with disabilities prefer not to disclose their disability when making tourism enquiries and bookings (McKercher et al., 2003). Education and training can reduce negative attitudes and discrimination (Randle & Reis, 2016), as demonstrated specifically in the context of tourism (Daruwalla & Darcy, 2005; Bizjak et al., 2011). Yet, the tourism industry has been slow to develop programs that adequately train and educate staff. Most operators instead focus on meeting the minimum requirements of regulators and legal institutions (Randle & Dolnicar, 2019).

It can be concluded that tourists with disabilities are at risk of being disadvantaged in three ways in the context of tourist accommodation: lack of accessibility due to the physical properties of the accommodation (physical barriers); lack of detailed information about the physical properties of the accommodation that would allow people to assess suitability before booking (informational barriers); and discrimination by accommodation providers (attitudinal barriers).

To examine this issue further, in December 2020 we conducted a survey with 361 people who do have (51%) and do not have (49%) disabilities. The survey included questions about the extent to which physical, informational and attitudinal barriers affect their ability to go on vacations. Physical barriers were identified as problematic by 34% of respondents with disabilities, compared to only 16% of those without disabilities. A chi-square test of independence indicates that this is a significant difference between groups (X2 (1, N = 352) = 14.099, p < .01). People with disabilities specifically mentioned accessibility issues associated with their disability, for example “if I travel by train, I cannot hear the announcements, so might not know if my train is due or running late”. People without disabilities mentioned barriers associated with accessibility more generally, for example those related to whether they had their own car or relied on public transport: “I didn’t have a car until recently, so that impacted my ability to get places in general”.

Informational barriers were reported by 43% of people with disabilities, compared to only 29% of people without disabilities (a significant difference, X2 (1, N = 352) = 6.967, p < .01). Again, people with disabilities mentioned informational barriers that directly related to their particular disability, for example accessing enough information to know if a property is genuinely accessible to wheelchairs: “I have to get other people to phone places for me to get information on accessibility, as websites don’t have the informationsometimes they still don’t account for steps outside the accommodation or take into account the width of wheelchairs”. People without disabilities also mentioned informational barriers, but these tended to relate to more general information about travel costs or activities at the destination: “[finding] information on getting the best price for the destination of my choice” and “I find it hard to decide where to go and what places would be enjoyable for me to go to”.

Attitudinal barriers were identified by 22% of people with disabilities, compared to 24% of people without disabilities – an insignificant difference (X2 (1, N = 352) = .184, p = .67). People with disabilities reported concerns such as “finding areas where people with like me are able to talk and socialize without being a nuisance to locals”, while people without disabilities reported other equity-related issues such as racism and LGBT acceptance: “LGBT rights in many countries are not good and “if I am likely to have difficulties in the location due to my race”.

Participants were further asked to think of what they would change in terms of tourism operators in general, ranking the important of the following three factors: “I would want providers to ensure the physical properties of their accommodation are suitable for my needs”, “I would want providers to describe their accommodation in more detail so I can assess if it is suitable for me” and “I would want more accommodation providers to be accepting of people like me”. Both people with and without disabilities ranked “I would want providers to describe their accommodation in more detail so I can assess if it is suitable for me” as the most important, with 72% of people with disabilities and 57% of people without disabilities ranking it first. Similarly, “I would want providers to ensure the physical properties of their accommodation are suitable for my needs” was ranked second overall by both groups: 63% of people with disabilities and 54% of people without disabilities. Lastly, “I would want more accommodation providers to be accepting of people like me” was ranked as least important overall, with 76% of people with disabilities and 74% of people without disabilities ranking it as least important.

Regulations ensuring accessible tourist accommodation

Most developed countries have legislation that protects the rights of people with disabilities. In the US, the Americans with Disability Act of 1990 regulates which provisions licensed, commercial tourist accommodation providers have to make to accommodate people with disabilities. For example, doors must be wide enough to allow people with walkers or wheelchairs to pass through, walkways cannot have steps or sudden drops that could cause falls, any dangers must be marked in a way that they can be detected by blind or vision-impaired people using a cane, and signs must be written in braille as well as letters. Depending on the total number of rooms in the accommodation, a certain number of accessible rooms and car spaces must be provided. Accommodation providers who have five rooms or less and live at the premises are exempt from these requirements (US Department of Justice, 2010). This means that according to the Americans with Disability Act many Airbnb hosts do not need to make any specific provisions, effectively excluding people with disabilities from fully participating in trading on peer-to-peer accommodation network platforms.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 in Australia and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in the UK (later replaced by the Equality Act 2010) outlaw direct and indirect discrimination against people with disabilities in several domains including education, employment and the provision of goods and services. The acts are supported by building standards and guidelines that specify the minimum numbers of accessible rooms and car parking spaces that must be provided by short-term accommodation providers, minimum requirements to ensure the safe entry and exit of buildings, minimum door widths, provision of tactile and multisensory signage and warning systems, accessible entry and exit of swimming pools and recreational facilities, and minimum standards for accessible lifts and bathroom facilities (Australian Government, 2010; HM Government, 2016). Similarly to US legislation, many of the accessibility requirements do not apply to owner-occupied premises with small numbers of guests, making many Airbnb properties exempt from complying with these national standards (von Briel & Dolnicar, 2021). This exemption means that it is theoretically possible that all properties listed on a peer-to-peer accommodation platform could be inaccessible for people with disabilities, systematically excluding them from participating in space trading via such platforms.

Airbnb for tourists with disabilities before COVID-19

Airbnb has been heavily criticised for not having to comply with accessibility regulations (e.g. Boxall et al., 2018; Heidman, 2014; Longmire, 2017; Redmond, 2014). The lack of this compliance requirement led to the automatic assumption that accommodation booked on peer-to-peer accommodation platforms is less accessible, and that people with disabilities suffer discrimination.

Different types of evidence offer some support for this assumption. One example is the language used in peer-to-peer accommodation listings. Labels used to describe people with disabilities can influence the extent to which people feel welcomed in properties and avoid stigmatisation or discrimination. For example, people in wheelchairs prefer not to be called “wheelchair bound”, while others find old fashioned terms like “crippled” particularly offensive (Randle & Dolnicar, 2019).

Another example is the information provided on listings on peer-to-peer trading webpages. Disabilities are unique to each person. This means that there is never a guarantee that a room that is designed to be accessible is in fact accessible to all people with disabilities, highlighting the critical importance of information describing the physical infrastructure in detail. Hosts’ lack of understanding of the needs of people with disabilities can result in the provision of insufficient or inaccurate information about the property. While this may not be intentional, the host may be unaware of the significant negative impact this can have on guests. Some have argued that people with disabilities need to be proactive in obtaining the information they need, as some able-bodied hosts may not know what information to provide (Randle & Dolnicar, 2019). Taking steps in both directions may be the most productive solution: providing more information on listings, as well as giving guests the opportunity to ask additional questions. The problem with this, however, is that guests with disabilities are sometimes reluctant to disclose their disability before booking because they fear that this may result in their booking request being declined.

People with disabilities may indeed be subject to discrimination by accommodation hosts. This can occur at the booking stage if hosts deliberately avoid accepting bookings from people with disabilities because of concerns about their comfort, safety or potential liability if accidents occur (Randle & Dolnicar, 2019). An experimental study following a classic research design for discrimination studies offers some evidence for the latter assumption (Ameri et al., 2017). Airbnb hosts were sent nearly 4,000 artificially generated bookings requests. In some of these booking enquiries, guests disclosed their disability, in others they did not. Guests not disclosing a disability were given permission to book (Karlsson et al., 2017) in 75% of cases. In contrast, only 25% of booking requests from guests with spinal injuries were approved, only 43% when the guest reported having cerebral palsy, and only 50% for guests with vision impairments. The gap in acceptance rates was smaller for listings which explicitly noted that the property was wheelchair accessible. Airbnb’s non-discrimination policy – introduced in 2016 – made no difference (Ameri et al., 2017). Importantly, discrimination is not the proven cause for the identified gaps in acceptance rates. As the authors of the study explicitly note, these empirical observations may be due to hosts being concerned that they may not be able to ensure the safety of guests with disabilities at their property.

Two developments resulted from the accusations that Airbnb and similar peer-to-peer accommodation platform facilitators fail to provide (enough) accessible accommodation: niche providers specialising in peer-to-peer accommodation for people with disabilities were founded; and platform facilitators have implemented changes to their platforms to overcome some of the barriers (von Briel & Dolnicar, 2020). Airbnb, informed by a report it commissioned on discrimination potentially occurring on its trading platform (Murphy, 2016), implemented a number of counteractive measures. These included launching education initiatives for hosts; redesigning webpages to assist with legibility; and adding additional descriptions for listings to ensure people with disabilities have access to more detailed information about the physical characteristics of properties.

In 2018, Airbnb launched 21 new accessibility filters on its website to enable people with disabilities to search for properties that meet their needs (Airbnb, 2018). The filters enable people to search for properties with a range of accessibility options related to parking, the entrance to the property, moving around within the property, and accessibility features specifically related to the bedroom, bathroom, and common areas. However, comments posted since 2018 on the Airbnb discussion board still highlight deficiencies in the information provided by hosts, for example, properties claiming to be suitable for mobility-impaired people but failing to have appropriate facilities in bathrooms. In one case, this resulted in a person slipping and injuring herself (Airbnb, 2021).

As of 2020, the Airbnb webpage provides the following details about accessibility of listings: “Entrance: stairs or steps to enter, well-lit path to entrance, wide entrance for guests, step-free path to entrance. Getting around: wide hallways (the hallways on the ground floor are at least 36 inches/91cm wide), lift (if needed, contact host about the width). Bedroom: no stairs or steps to enter, wide entrance, accessible-height bed, extra space around bed, electric profiling bed. Bathroom: no stairs or steps to enter, wide doorway to guest. Bathroom: extra space around toilet, accessible-height toilet, fixed grab rails for toilet, extra space around shower, fixed grab rails for shower, step-free shower, shower chair, handheld shower head, bathtub with bath chair. Common areas: no stairs or steps to enter, wide entryway. Parking: disabled parking spot (there’s a parking spot that’s been designated as suitable for a person with disabilities). Equipment: mobile hoist, pool with pool hoist, ceiling hoist”.

Before COVID-19, Airbnb faced criticism for discrimination and lack of compliance with accessibility regulations associated with more traditional accommodation options. While efforts were made to give more specific accessibility details for listings, personal accounts reveal that listings often still provide misleading or incomplete information for people with disabilities. To investigate this issue further, we included in our survey (conducted in December 2020) questions about the degree to which physical, informational and attitudinal barriers are present when people with and without disabilities use Airbnb, seen in Figure 9.1. Physical barriers were problematic for 15% of people with disabilities, compared to only 6% of people without disabilities. A chi-square test of independence indicated no significant difference between groups, X2 (1, N = 104) = 2.133, p = .14. However, it is likely for this statistic and the chi-squares reported below that the sample size is too small (N = 104) to provide sufficient power to detect an effect. Again, people with disabilities identified specific challenges which were directly related to their disability, for example “being able to read house numbers” and “staircases without suitable railings”. People without disabilities also identified issues associated with accessibility, however these related to other individual needs such as travelling with pets: “travelling with dogs it is hard to find pet friendly places”. The difference between the groups is that because the barriers faced by people with disabilities related to their disability, it was impossible for them to avoid such challenges when they travel. The barriers faced by people without disabilities more often related to circumstances that they create by choice, such as travelling with pets. Therefore, they have the choice to avoid the barriers by not travelling with their pets, but they choose instead to navigate the barriers this creates. People with disabilities do not have this luxury of choice when it comes to barriers to travel.

Informational barriers were reported by 41% of people with disabilities compared to only 32% of those without disabilities. A chi-square test of independence indicated no significant difference between groups, X2 (1, N = 104) = .855, p = .36. People with disabilities gave examples such as “not enough information on the website available! Incorrect information noted. Unable to see exact location without actually asking or booking the accommodation – I need to know how far things are and how I can travel to the destination / parking arrangements”. People without disabilities identified more generic informational barriers such as the information needed to assess potential value for money; “enough pictures to decide if the money is worth renting the place out”.

Attitudinal barriers were identified by 6% of respondents with disabilities and 10% of those without disabilities. A chi-square test of independence indicated no significant difference between groups, X2 (1, N = 104) = .722, p = .40. People with disabilities gave examples of suspected discrimination by hosts because of their disability, for example “contacting the property owner with a request (often unsuccessfully – I can only assume it is because they don’t want to accommodate people with disabilities)”. People without disabilities also reported attitudinal barriers which were typically related to equity issues depending on which groups they identified with. For example, this included the negative attitudes of hosts based on race or sexual orientation: “finding whether or not if the host is accepting of others in the LGBTQ community” and “when a host realises I am black suddenly property being unavailable or hidden costs come to light”.

Bar chart showing that informational and physical barriers affect those with a disability more than those without. Attitudinal barriers affect those without a disability more than those with a disability. Overall, informational barriers were reported by both those with and those without a disability more than informational and physical barriers. Reporting of barriers by the two groups was as follows: Informational barriers (32% without disability, 41% with a disability), Physical barriers (6% without a disability, 15% with a disability), Attitudinal (10% without a disability, 6% with a disability).
Figure 9.1: Barriers experienced with Airbnb by those with and without a disability.

We conducted another survey in January 2021 with 57 Airbnb hosts. One interesting insight from this survey was that – although participants from the previous survey suggested they faced similar levels of attitudinal barriers between those with/without disabilities – the Airbnb hosts themselves reported widespread concerns about hosting guests with disabilities. A substantial portion of hosts reported discomfort with guests with disabilities booking their space; 23% reported “I feel awkward about it”, 35% reported “I am worried I could get into trouble” and 15% even reported “I would rather not host them”. Concern regarding the suitability of spaces for those with disabilities was also specifically cited; 53% of hosts indicated “I am not sure my space is suitable” and 88% “I would want to make sure my space is suitable”. A final question about guests with disabilities was posed to hosts: “A key problem people with disabilities face when they book holiday accommodation on online booking platforms such as Airbnb is that they are not provided with enough information to allow them to assess whether or not the space is suitable for them. If you were told exactly what people with disabilities would need, would you be willing to add this information to your online listing?”, to which 90% of hosts responded “yes”. While the results from the previous survey suggested attitudinal barriers were faced equally between those with and without disability while using Airbnb, results from the hosts appear to suggest otherwise. The ignorance surrounding the provision of disability appropriate spaces, while perhaps not aggressive in nature, still represents a significant attitudinal barrier which may in turn create informational barriers for those with disabilities.

Airbnb for tourists with disabilities during COVID-19

Since its market entrance, Airbnb has been labelled a disruptor. Airbnb disrupted the accommodation sector, significantly impacting the growth trajectories of licensed, commercial accommodation providers (Blal et al., 2018; Edwards, 2016; Zervas et al., 2017). At the same time, the growth trajectory of Airbnb has been exponential, only slowly flattening off in early 2020 (Alltherooms, 2020). But flattening growth was the least of Airbnb’s problems in 2020. COVID-19 disrupted the disruptor (Dolnicar & Zare, 2020). Notably, COVID-19 put a stop to the most fundamental requirement for tourism: mobility.

Yet, it is unknown how this mobility restriction affected people with disabilities. A number of hypotheses could be put forward: people with disabilities are affected in the same way as people without disabilities who want to take a vacation; people with disabilities are more affected than people without disabilities because they are a vulnerable group within the population who already face significant barriers to travel; or people with disabilities are less affected than people without disabilities because they already faced so many barriers prior to the onset of COVID-19 that the additional restrictions imposed by the pandemic affected them only marginally more than usual.

In our survey, we asked people with/without disabilities if they felt more, less, or equally affected by COVID-19 as people without/with disabilities. The majority of people with disabilities felt equally affected as people without disabilities (60%), however a minority did feel more (32%) or less (8%) affected. Examples given for feeling equally affected as people without disabilities included “the issues are structural and affect everyone”, “disability does not keep me from traveling, it is financial” and “my disability is a disconnection to people anyway and social situations can be very difficult. It levels the playing field there”. People with disabilities who felt they were more affected than people without disabilities attributed this to reasons such as being immunocompromised and the exacerbation of their existing barriers; “I can’t lip read when people are wearing masks” and “taxi usage is reduced and personal assistance is non-existent”. People with disabilities who felt they were less affected than people without disabilities explained this in terms of the significant barriers to taking vacations they already faced, and the relatively minimal impact the pandemic had on these existing barriers. For example, “able bodied people aren’t used to being given limitations on their holidays” and “COVID had no impact because I was already unable to take vacations”.

People without disabilities were most likely to report feeling equally affected as (48%) or less affected than (43%) people with disabilities. A minority believed they were more affected than people with disabilities (9%). People who believed they were equally affected cited the non-discriminatory nature of the pandemic and the fact that everyone in society had the same restrictions imposed on them. For example, “no one can travel to certain countries at the moment regardless of disability”. People who felt they were less affected than people with disabilities acknowledged that “those with disabilities already face more challenges when booking vacations than those without disabilities I’d imagine those with disabilities are even more affected”. People who felt they were more affected than people with disabilities explained this by stating that people with disabilities already faced so many barriers that the pandemic was unlikely to significantly increase these barriers, whereas people who did not already face significant barriers to travel were likely to feel the COVID-19-related restrictions more keenly. For example “because there are so many things that people with disabilities might not want to do – whereas if you don’t already have those restrictions…”.

When asked about how often they took vacations prior to COVID-19, people with disabilities reported travelling less often than those without disabilities. Around one quarter of people with disabilities reported travelling less than once per year (26%), and the largest proportion reported travelling about once per year (39%). Only around one third travelled more than once per year (35%). In contrast, around one fifth of people without disabilities took a vacation less than once a year (19%) and around double this number (39%) took vacations more than once per year (39%). The remainder of people without disabilities (43%) reported taking vacations around once per year. A chi-square test of independence indicated no significant difference between groups (X2 (2, N = 352) = 3.052, p = .22). This gap in holidaying was exacerbated by COVID-19 as seen in Figure 9.2, with people with disabilities reporting that since the onset of COVID-19 they had travelled: not at all (90%), once (9%) or more than once (1%), compared to those without disability reporting not at all (83%), once (11%) or more than once (6%). A chi-square test of independence indicated a significant difference between groups (X2 (2, N = 352) = 9.411, p < .01 for post-COVID-19 travel).

Bar chart showing that the majority of respondents – both with and without a disability – have not travelled at all since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has affected those with a disability more than those without, with more respondents without a disability reporting travelling once, or more than once, than those with a disability.  Reporting of travel activity by the two groups was as follows: "Not at all" - 85% without disability, 90% with disability; "Once" - 11% without disability, 9% with disability; "More than once" - 6% without disability, 1% with disability
Figure 9.2: Post-COVID-19 travel of those with and without a disability.

It is apparent that the restrictions posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have largely affected everyone’s travel behaviour, with the vast majority of people not having travelled at all since the onset of the pandemic. As seen in Figure 9.2, those with disabilities have been more affected than those without, travelling less since the onset of COVID-19. However, respondents provided mixed responses about the impact of COVID-19 on people with and without disabilities – with some stating that those without disabilities have been more negatively affected due to their unfamiliarity with a reduction in mobility, and some stating that those with disabilities have been more affected due to the exacerbation of their existing difficulties.

Airbnb for tourists with disabilities after COVID-19

The COVID-19 global pandemic will have major long-term implications for the tourism industry in general, and the accommodation sector in particular. The immediate need to protect guests and employees from the virus while remaining operational, combined with expert predictions that pandemic outbreaks are likely to occur more frequently in future, will likely mean some systematic modifications to tourism service provision. The best basis for a prediction of those changes are recommendations made by industry associations to their members (Zhu and Dolnicar, 2021). Based on these recommendations, it can be assumed that there will be a trend toward spaces which permit social distancing, the use of disposable items, the use of personal protective equipment, the routine use of hand sanitisers, increased cleaning standards, a transition from hardcopies to online interfaces (e.g. restaurant menus), and a transition to more cashless payments.

When asked what kind of challenges COVID-19 has presented, people with disabilities provided suggestions such as “[there are] less places to stop and rest i.e. cafes, public toilets etc.” and “compulsory masks mean I cannot lip read and struggle to hear people”. When asked what kind of support tourism operators could provide to make their services safer and more accessible for those with disabilities during COVID-19, a common sentiment was that “I feel that there is nothing they can do; I will wait until I get vaccinated for COVID-19 before I go on another vacation”. Others offered suggestions such as “I rely heavily on lip reading. Wearing face masks prevents this…Maybe have more information available in written form” and any signs about doors/access…it’s really annoying to get to a door of a museum or art gallery only to be told go back and enter a different way. Fine if you are able-bodied but extremely tiring if walking is difficult”.

When considering the support and assistance that Airbnb could provide to overcome the challenges associated with COVID-19, suggestions from people with disabilities largely related to informational barriers (predominantly what and how information is presented on the Airbnb website or associated websites). For example, “better posting or a review site not affiliated with Airbnb maybe that can give more objective reviews/information about places”, “an accessibility index would be amazing”, “better descriptions”. Some also suggested improvements to the questionnaires hosts answer in order to provide information about their property on the website, for example, “more thorough questionnaires hosts have to answer. Maybe a special filter for I don’t want to interact”.


People with disabilities have traditionally faced difficulties thought to be the result of being ‘abnormal’ or having limited capacity (People with Disability Australia, 2018). The social model of disability contrasts this notion by positing that people with impairments encounter difficulties that arise when they try to interact with their socially constructed environments (Oliver, 1983; Oliver, 2013). Our survey of the travel experiences of people with and without disabilities provides evidence for the social model of disability in terms of two of the three types of barriers faced by people with impairments: physical and informational, but not attitudinal. However, insights from a study with Airbnb hosts in January 2021 reveal that Airbnb hosts did exhibit reservations about hosting guests with disabilities, largely based on uncertainty of their needs. This suggests these barriers were experienced disproportionately more by those with disabilities, both in travel overall and specifically when using Airbnb. This suggests that despite the moves for improvement by Airbnb to counter the criticism they have faced for informational and physical barriers, these barriers still present a current issue for travellers with disabilities.

Overall, COVID-19 appears to have impacted travellers with disabilities disproportionately, exacerbating the existing gap of travel frequency before the pandemic. New barriers have been identified – such as communication issues associated with wearing face masks or physical distancing – which have the potential to exacerbate existing difficulties for people with disabilities in their endeavours to travel. In the ever-changing climate of a pandemic-affected world, new and old barriers will need to be continually reassessed in order to provide people with disabilities safe and enjoyable travel experiences. Providing detailed information about all aspects of a property listed on Airbnb which affect its suitability for someone with a disability represents the easiest approach to closing the gap. People with disabilities indicate that they would greatly benefit from such detailed information and Airbnb hosts are happy to provide it. Providing additional information would also further add to the value of the information provided about listings on Airbnb.com, thus representing a simple solution that is beneficial to all involved in peer-to-peer accommodation trading.


This chapter is based on Randle, M. and Dolnicar, S. (2018) Guests with disabilities, in S. Dolnicar (Ed.), Peer-to-Peer Accommodation Networks: Pushing the boundaries, Oxford: Goodfellow Publishers, 244-254.

Survey data collection in 2020 was approved by the University of Wollongong Human Research Ethics Committee (2016/338). It was funded by the Australian Research Council Linkage Program (LP150100476).

Survey data collection in 2021 was approved by the University of Queensland Human Ethics Committee (approval number 2020001659).


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Airbnb Before, During and After COVID-19 by The University of Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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