Editor’s Note: Since this article was originally published, Accomable has been acquired by Airbnb
Srin Madipalli has spinal muscular atrophy – a genetic disorder that affects the control of muscle movement and has confined him to a wheelchair his whole life.
Despite the inherent difficulties, he loves to travel.
“I’m a bit of an adrenalin junkie,” the former London lawyer says with a wry smile. “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.”
It’s never been easy for him to pursue his passion, but that could soon change.
Along with business partner Martyn Sibley, who also has spinal muscular atrophy, Madipalli has recently launched a new accessible travel website called Accomable.
If it takes off, it could expand the opportunities for disabled travelers everywhere.
‘The fear was insane’
Hailed as an Airbnb for the mobility sector, Accomable connects disabled travelers with suitable accommodation around the world.
The service launched in June 2015 and has since been gathering support from the media and users alike.
But the idea came to Madipalli four years previously as he was traveling around the world on a career break.
“I went to Europe, U.S.A., southern Africa, Indonesia and Singapore,” he says. “In California we went on a wheelchair trek through Yosemite.
“I stayed on an adapted campsite on the Mozambique South Africa border.
“And in Bali I found an adaptive diving center willing to literally fling me out into the sea.
“The fear was insane, but it was intoxicating and really empowering too.”
Madipalli says his adventures were overshadowed by the logistical difficulties he faced in organizing suitable facilities.
“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.
“It was getting boring having to spend so much time assessing the fundamental practicalities, instead of planning the fun stuff. It’s a problem I’d faced a number of times and I knew millions of others had too.”
Later on that trip, Madipalli was joined in California by Sibley, another passionate globetrotter, who was already working to help raise the profile of accessible travel.
The pair decided then and there to set up an online magazine, Disability Horizons, which would help encourage disabled people to enjoy more active lives.
“It’s like a Time Out for disability lifestyle stuff,” he explains.
To date they have a community of more than 40,000 users.
But the problems Madipalli faced while trying to organize his trip still existed, so the pair decided to do more.
Madipalli left his job and put himself through an MBA at Oxford University business school and then taught himself to code.
“It meant that together Martyn and I had all the skills and expertise to get the project up and running,” he explains.
“We’re in a unique position because we have a lot of those tech start-up skills but also a lot of user understanding from being disabled people ourselves.”
Their first breakthrough came after winning funding from the Skoll Centre Venture Award through Oxford University’s Said Business School, which offers grants to exceptional new ventures, that have been set up by Oxford alumni students, and are deemed to have the most potential to create large-scale social impact.
With that seed money, Madipalli started building Accomable in February 2015 and had a prototype ready by May.
The pair hit the road, visiting and vetting vendors and then launched with about 30 properties in June.
Now there more than 400 on the site and it’s growing.
The focus for now is on finding suitable accommodation, but the vision is much larger.
Sibley has recently left the venture, but Madipalli says he’s now in advanced talks with investment syndicates and angel investors for substantial further funding.
“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,” adds Madipalli.
He says he also wants to bring more transparency to the disability travel industry.
” At the moment you have absolutely no assurance whether the small little company you find on page 10 of Google is legitimate,” he adds. “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.”
It’s not just the disability market.
The Accomable platform is useful to anyone with mobility issues – including the elderly, a market that, Madipalli points out, is set to grow over the coming years.
So why does Madipalli think travel is important?
“The world is a fun and interesting place,” he says. “When you expand your horizons and see other parts of the world you learn so much.
“People often talk about how small the world is – actually it’s pretty damn big. It’s awe-inspiring to see how diverse and different and colorful things are.”
And will increased access to travel help to change the lives of disabled people around the world?
Maybe, he says, but that’s not necessarily the goal.
“What we’re trying to do is create the same experience for a disabled person booking travel, as an everyday person would have.
“For some people that may be this mind-blowing effect, for others it might just be the chance to put their feet up under the sun.
“We just want to facilitate 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.”
Aaron Millar is an award-winning freelance journalist. He writes a blog at www.thebluedotperspective.com