Srin Madipalli, co-founder of new travel accommodation website Accomable, explains how he plans to make exploring the world hassle-free for all, irrespective of physical ability
Srin Madipalli has always been an avid traveller, despite being confined to a wheelchair with severe spinal muscular atrophy. Going on holiday has never been easy for him, but that may be set to change.
Along with business partner Martyn Sibley, the pair have just launched Accomable, a new website that connects disabled people, or those with mobility issues, to suitable accommodation. It’s being hailed as the Airbnb for the mobility sector and is already changing the lives of hundreds of disabled travellers around the world. Here, he explains what the new project is all about:
I’m 29. I used to be a corporate lawyer, for my sins. But I was absolutely miserable. I wanted to do something that was more creative, more impactful.
At the end of 2010 I took six months off work to go travelling. I’d been abroad before but it was always tagging along with parents, visiting relatives – that kind of thing. This was the first time that I was travelling with just my personal assistants and doing stuff that was more adventurous. I’m a bit of an adrenalin junkie. I enjoy being out of my comfort zone. It’s scary, but for me it’s been an important part of self-learning and self-development.
In Bali I found a diving centre willing to literally fling me out into the sea. The fear of going in was insane, but when you come up and you’re still breathing it’s intoxicating and really empowering.”
I travelled all around Europe, USA, southern Africa, Indonesia, and Singapore. In Bali I found an adaptive diving centre willing to literally fling me out into the sea. The fear of going in was insane, but when you come up and you’re still breathing it’s intoxicating and really empowering. In California we went on a wheelchair trek through Yosemite. And on the Mozambique – South Africa border I found a tour operator that had adapted campsites and went on a safari. Being a few metres away from a lion was nuts.
I had an amazing time. But it was difficult to organise. I’d have to spend days researching how to get an adapted car in South Africa. Or to find a hotel that can accommodate me in Boston. I’d literally have to spend day after day after day making plans, whereas I see my other friends booking travel and it would take them five minutes.
I wasn’t even searching for what’s nice or not – I wouldn’t mind that. I’d like to be choosy. But it was getting boring having to spend so much time assessing the fundamental practicalities, instead of planning the fun stuff.
I had always felt that this was an area where there was a big problem. It’s a problem I’d faced and I knew thousands of others had too. If we could solve it a little bit, I figured, then at least we would have done something useful for the world.
Later, on that trip, my co-founder Martyn Sibley (who also has spinal muscular atrophy) joined me in California – we wanted to do the usual road trip thing. He had already been doing a lot to raise the profile of accessible travel, so we decided then to start an online magazine, Disability Horizons – it’s like a Huffington Post or Time Out for disability lifestyle stuff. We now have a community of about 40,000. It’s a fun project and hopefully we’ve encouraged some people to do some enjoyable things because of it.
But we wanted to do more. So we pitched the idea of Accomable – a website that would connect disabled travellers with suitable accommodation – to the Skoll Foundation. Every year they run a competition for Oxford University alumni to pitch a project that will deliver social impact. We won the prize and a bit of seed funding to get the project off the ground and stop us going cold and hungry, which is always helpful, of course.
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On top of that I was learning to code. I did a bunch of online courses and went to these boot camps where they literally lock you in a dark room and you just code. It sounds creepy but it’s actually really fun. It meant that together Martyn and I had all the skills and expertise to get the project up and running. We’re in a unique position because we have a lot of those tech start up skills but also a lot of user understanding, as we’re disabled people ourselves.
I started building Accomable in February and we had a prototype around May. We hit the road visiting vendors and then launched around June time. We had about 30 properties on there to start, but there are about 140 now. And it’s growing.
We want this to be a platform for accessible travel. Like an Expedia-type solution where users can say ‘I can’t walk, I need a roll-in shower, I need an accessible car’ and so on, then you just tick a few boxes and it’s all booked.
At the moment the focus is on finding good places to stay. But the vision is much bigger. We want to find all the accessible car hire companies, all the medical equipment hire companies, all the disability insurance providers and bring them onto one common platform.
We want this to be an Expedia-type solution where users can say ‘I can’t walk, I need a roll-in shower’ and so on, then you just tick a few boxes and it’s all booked.”
We want to bring more transparency to the industry. At the moment you have absolutely no assurance whether the small company you find on page ten of Google is legitimate. Our team verifies that everything is proper – that these are legitimate vendors that do what they say they’re going to do. We hope we can bring the industry to a certain level of standard.
And it’s not just the disability market – there are lots of people who have similar issues due to old age and other reasons as well. These shouldn’t be limitations on travel.
The world is a fun, interesting place. When you expand your horizons and see other parts of the planet you learn so much. People often talk about how small the world is – actually it’s pretty damn big. There’s a lot of stuff to see and it’s awe-inspiring to see how diverse and colourful things are.
But accessible travel, like other forms of travel, doesn’t have to be a spiritually enlightening experience – for some people it may be mind-blowing while for others it might just be the chance to put their feet up and do sod-all for a couple weeks.
We just want to help people to do whatever they want to do. We want to allow people like Martyn, and myself, to be general consumers and worry about the same picky things everybody else does. I want our users to have a wide range of genuine choices and be able to build any kind of travel experience they want, irrespective of their background or physical ability.
Positive Travel is edited by Aaron Millar. He writes about adventure travel, and personal development through exploring the world, at The Blue Dot Perspective.