In 2011, avid adventurer Srin Madipalli took six months off from his job as a lawyer to travel. The 29-year-old Londoner scuba dived in Bali, trekked in Yosemite, went on a safari in South Africa, and learned to fly a plane, among other things most of us only daydream about. The term life-changing trip couldn’t be more true–and in more ways than you might think.
While most travelers worry about unexpected costs, missed trains and cancelled flights, the passionate traveler had bigger challenges to face, like how to get into buildings that require the use of stairs. Srin has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (or SMA), a genetic disorder that impairs movement and requires him to use a motorized wheelchair. The six-month excursion opened his eyes to how difficult it was to find information on accessible transportation and accommodations. “A lot of times it involved taking a major risk and hoping for the best.”
Srin has been a wheelchair user his entire life, but his biggest hurdle in traveling is still the logistics of doing so with a wheelchair. “I love planning a big trip, but there are some really boring things you need to look into too if you have a disability. These things can threaten to suck the fun out of what should otherwise be a great trip.” During his extended travels, he realized that many of those frustrations could be solved by technology and by creating online products with reliable information and means of booking. “Such systems have revolutionized travel for other customer sectors, so why not for the accessible travel market?”
Not one to let the boring things stop him–or anyone else with mobility impairments–from traveling, Srin and fellow travel-loving co-founder Martyn Sibley, who also has SMA, created Disability Horizons, today the UK’s fastest-growing disability lifestyle magazine. While the pair grew the magazine into a key voice in the disability conversation, Srin put himself through an MBA at Oxford Saïd Business School and taught himself to code, and Martyn launched a social media consultancy, both with their sights set on something even greater: a site that would pair travelers with mobility challenges with vetted and verified accessible accommodations. In April of 2015 they had a working prototype, and with a grant from the Skoll Foundation, just two months later they launched Accomable, a website like Airbnb where hosts can list their homes for rent to travelers–provided that the accommodations are accessible to people with disabilities or mobility issues with features like step-free access and roll-in showers.
“Shared economy businesses such as Air BnB and Uber are brilliant but have so far only really catered to the mass market. With Accomable, we’re hoping to change that,” Srin said. Their mission is both simple and monumental: to enable anyone to go anywhere. Today, anywhere spans 170 hotels, apartments, villas and houses around the world, and inquiries and bookings come in all the time, he said. “I love the fact we’re able to offer such a diverse mix of hosts,” he said. “Each one is unique, from family-run funky apartments in Barcelona, which have been fully adapted for anyone with a disability, to country houses in Ireland, to luxury villas in Florida.”
Travelers who use Accomable range from younger people who want to go on city breaks and travel with their friends, to families where one relative has a disability, to people booking for an elderly relative, Srin said. He himself uses his site regularly. “I use Accomable for my own travels all the time! In fact, part of my role is seeking out new hosts. So, in September I was able to travel around Belgium, France and Switzerland to check out accessible properties. It’s definitely one of the perks of the job!”
But Srin and Martyn aren’t the only ones who love Accomable. “Our hosts really value the fact we highlight their efforts in accessible travel. For example, we discovered one fantastic property in Barcelona whose owner has made every apartment fully accessible. No one had heard of it, and now it’s one of our top sellers with customers,” Srin said. Travelers find solace in being able to trust that the properties listed on the site are truly accessible. “Many are nervous about travelling with a disability, as they’ve experienced difficulties in the past with accommodation that turns out to not be accessible after all.”
True to ambitious form, Srin and Martyn are working toward an even bigger vision: to create a one-stop shop for travelers with a disability, including specialized vehicle hire, insurance and excursions. “We have already started offering specialized equipment hire, so the dream is well on the way.”
While their dream is a hugely important and beneficial one in the movement to make the world more accessible to all, it’s only a piece of the puzzle. Thankfully, technology is making the puzzle easier to solve. “There are some fantastic people developing new tech for this very purpose. I love Access Now which uses crowdsourcing to pin-point the accessibility status of locations on an interactive map,” Srin said. “We hope we’re part of the beginning of an accessible travel revolution.”
Technology isn’t the only thing on accessible travel’s side. Srin and Martyn themselves show the world that traveling with a disability or mobility issue is not only possible, it’s limitless. Ever since Srin’s trips to visit family in India exposed him to its vibrancy and ignited his interest in travel, he hasn’t let SMA or bad accommodation experiences get in his way of checking things off his impressive bucket list and adding even more to it. “I loved going on an accessible safari in South Africa, so another wildlife trip would be great, maybe in a country I’ve never been to before like Ecuador,” he said. “Also, I recently went on a fantastic beer-tasting break in Belgium, and loved visiting some of the country’s lesser known towns, like Ghent, which is an absolute gem. Europe’s medieval cities are surprisingly accessible, and I’m keen to see more of them in 2016.”
For others with an itch to travel, Srin tells them “Don’t put off traveling because you have a disability… Places are becoming more and more accessible and there’s more information out there on how to do it.” Accomable and Disability Horizons are great places to start.
Since the launch of Accomable, the site has forever changed not just Srin and Martyn’s life, but the lives of countless travelers around the world in need of accessible accommodations. But for Srin, it’s not just him and Martyn making accessible travel possible–it’s hosts, travelers and everyone with or without disabilities or mobility issues. “What brings us together is an ability to provide quality accessible accommodation and to ensure our users have a brilliant, stress-free holiday experience.”