Making a space accessible should involve more than a checklist
What does 'accessible' truly mean? There's no single definition, a columnist says.
After a recent conversation with Bernadette Scarduzio, my friend and fellow Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) advocate, regarding the inaccessibility of short-term rentals, I’ve been thinking a lot about accessibility.
It’s a buzzword in the disability community, but for many, the concept is nebulous. This truth was highlighted by Scarduzio’s experience with the short-term rental industry, which, unlike hotels, doesn’t always comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
For example, Scarduzio and I talked about how the word “accessible” is often used to indicate the existence of ramps and a bathroom on the first floor. However, these conveniences don’t necessarily make a place accessible to everyone in the CMT community, much less the wider disability community.
What’s accessible to one person may not be accessible to another.
Scarduzio and I exemplify this fact. Although we’re both CMTers, my symptoms aren’t as advanced as hers. For now, they typically only limit the clothes I wear, the tools I use, and the recreational activities I participate in.
And of course, “disabled” doesn’t just refer to those of us with limited mobility. There are disabilities related to cognition, hearing, sight, and age, as well.
So what do we mean when we say we want more everyday experiences to be accessible? And how should a business sector like the short-term rental industry pursue such a goal?
Instinctively, I thought a solution might involve a checklist similar to what hotels use to comply with the ADA. That’s not always feasible, however. For example, maintaining a short-term rental space that matches the ADA’s requirements for hotels would cost too much for most hosts.
Besides, simply declaring something accessible based on a simple list of requirements isn’t the kind of inclusivity I want to see in the world. People often create checklists presuming they know what’s needed. But again, each person has different needs. In addition, people generally complete checklists and then forget about them. Lists don’t promote continued conversation or cooperation, or allow for nuance.
What does accessibility look like?
To gain further insight into how to best think about and advocate for accessibility, I reached out to an expert, Lorraine Woodward. She has muscular dystrophy (MD) and founded Becoming RentABLE, a short-term rental listing platform that caters to travelers with disabilities.
Woodward’s journey into the short-term rental space began in 2014, when she built a vacation property in Carolina Beach, North Carolina. The property features 36-inch-wide doors, a hard-surface driveway, an elevator, a roll-in shower large enough for a wheelchair and an attendant, wheel-under counters, and other features that suit the needs of Woodward and her two sons, who also have MD.
After deciding to list it on short-term rental platforms a year later, Woodward quickly realized just how rare she was — a host who had a rental space created with the disability community in mind. This rarity prompted her to reflect on how a lack of accessible spaces affected much of her life.
“[In part, because] I have limited mobility and use a Hoyer lift to get in and out of bed and I physically need help getting on and off a toilet, I did not even engage in a thought process that permitted me to think that I could travel,” Woodward told me in our video chat. “But I want things to be different for my boys.”
This desire is what ultimately led Woodward to create Becoming RentABLE in 2021. Since then, she’s had a lot of time to think about accessibility in short-term rentals.
A comprehensive approach
Currently, Woodward believes in taking a multifaceted approach and promoting education and awareness. Her platform uses descriptive filters instead of labels that simply declare something universally accessible. That allows users to find properties that suit their specific needs.
It’s a comprehensive approach that welcomes disabled folks into the conversation. And I think that’s what’s important and needed when it comes to accessibility — a bit of humility, an acknowledgment that there’s no single definition. We depend on our community to not only amplify our collective voice, but to listen to us as individuals.
Woodward is pushing for that kind of shift in the short-term rental space, and Scarduzio recently joined her team as a brand ambassador. I hope we each find a space where we can make a difference. And together, I hope we can foster the solidarity, support, and accessibility we all need.
Note: Charcot-Marie-Tooth News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Charcot-Marie-Tooth News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Charcot-Marie-Tooth.