Daman Wandke was explicit in explaining what he needed in his San Francisco hotel room: he had to have a roll-in shower to accommodate his wheelchair. He took the extra step of calling to confirm with the hotel, whose staff made a note in his reservations.
When he arrived at the start of a business trip last year, he found that not only was his reservation wrong, but the hotel didn’t even have rooms with the kind of shower he needed.
“I had to go to three hotels before I could take a shower,” Wandke said.
Kyann Flint, who also uses a wheelchair, made reservations in a Seattle suburb for a room that met Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. She was given an ADA compliant room — for someone who is hearing impaired.
“When you book a hotel and want an accessible room, you need to really know what that means and if it will meet your needs,” Wandke said.
But the travel industry is not set up to do this. Not only are websites often ill-equipped to allow people to select rooms that meet specific physical requirements, even when customers call, hotel staff frequently don’t know what their facility has to offer or they might provide misinformation.
Wandke and Flint are hoping to solve this problem. They’re working on a website called AbiliTrek that allows travelers to find and book rooms that meet specific needs for mobility, hearing or visual challenges. They’re using crowdsourcing to build a database of reviews focused on accessibility. AbiliTrek will also call hotels to help people find suitable rooms.
“There is a big data gap that we’re trying to fill,” said Wandke. He is the CEO and founder of AbiliTrek, which is based in Bellingham, Wash., north of Seattle.
“You have to be patient and keep asking questions,” said Flint, who is AbiliTrek’s chief accessibility officer and contacts hotels to confirm their services. The hotel staff “have never really been asked these questions. It’s just not really thought of.”
That oversight exists despite the fact that Americans with disabilities spend more than $17 billion a year on travel, according to a 2015 Market Study. And nearly half of hotel guests with disabilities faced obstacles during their stay, said the report by the Open Doors Organization, which supports travel in this sector.
When it comes to having a disability and traveling, “the lack of information that’s out there is the biggest challenge,” said Katy Rosseland, a program coordinator for the nonprofit Open Doors, which is based in Chicago.
The Path to AbiliTrek
San Diego is Wandke’s favorite travel spot. Sunshine and better-than-average accessibility. But he’s traveled across the country for work and pleasure, including rock climbing in Lake Tahoe, Calif., and navigating the subway systems in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Boston.
“I’ve put myself out there for every opportunity,” said Wandke, who has Cerebral Palsy. “You never know what will happen.”
Last year that included winning the Bellingham Startup Challenge with his pitch for an AbiliTrek prototype. This year, AbiliTrek won “Best Consumer Product Idea” at the University of Washington Business Plan Competition.
Wandke attended Western Washington University in Bellingham, earning a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s of Business Administration. It was through Western that he met Flint and Travis Heller, who works as AbiliTrek’s CTO. While a student, Wandke started the university’s only club for students with disabilities and helped create its Disability Outreach Center.
“My parents always had the attitude that I would do whatever everybody else does,” Wandke said.
That included running for high school president his sophomore year. Wandke almost got the spot, but students weren’t sure he could do the job due to his disability, despite believing that he was qualified.
“That kind of lit a fire under me,” Wandke said. He began promoting disability awareness, and came back to win the vice president job his senior year.
‘We all have different needs’
Wandke is still working to educate the public. Part of his job at AbiliTrek is reaching out to hotels to consult on ways to make their buildings more accessible.
“They say, ‘You use a wheelchair, I know what you need.’ But we all have different needs,” Wandke said. “There is not one solution to fit everybody.”
For example, one person in a wheelchair might want a lower bed for transferring into, while someone else needs a tall bed so that a lifting device can slide under it.
The AbiliTrek site has a questionnaire with 37 accessibility parameters so that travelers can build their own profiles. Features include bed and counter height, the ability to unlock a door via phone, accessible light switches and resources to help those with vision and hearing disabilities.
Open Doors Organization has built a database of accessibility information for hotels, restaurants and other venues in the Chicago area. Rosseland applauded AbiliTrek’s national effort.
“Technology is playing such a huge role in access these days,” she said. “The more that the [hospitality] industry sees the benefit and opportunity with people with disabilities, the more ready and willing they will be to make that information available and accurate.”
The website Oyster, the “hotel tell-all,” fact-checks the advertising of general hotel amenities such as room size, pool quality, workout spaces and beach access. It’s a similar idea to what AbiliTrek does for travelers with disabilities, said Flint, though arguably more is at stake with their project.
Oyster highlights what is disappointing, compared to AbiliTrek’s assessment of what is functional, said Flint, who has a neuromuscular disorder. “Like if I can’t use that toilet, that is something I need, versus I can’t go five miles on the treadmill this morning” because the gym was mediocre.
The challenge now is harnessing the power of the crowd to generate and share information on which hotels are disability friendly and which aren’t.
“This is a long process,” Flint said. “Making things better in any area takes time.”