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The Sharing Economy: Challenges and Opportunities for People with Disabilities

The “sharing economy” is a term used to refer to the growing number of digital platforms through which individuals connect directly with one another in order to obtain and provide goods and services. Examples of these digital platforms include “transportation network companies” such as Lyft and Uber, home-sharing services such as Airbnb, and platforms that connect individuals with providers who can perform odd jobs such as TaskRabbit and Thumbtack.  Many other types exist as well.

In this study, AARP examined how people with disabilities view the sharing economy.  We held in-depth conversations with a total of 43 people who either have a disability or provide care to someone with a disability.  Through these discussions, we sought to learn how to help make the sharing economy more accessible to everyone, regardless of ability level.  

Key Findings:

  • Few participants said they had heard of the term “sharing economy.” However, after listening to a description of the sharing economy and viewing examples of several sharing economy websites, many said they had already heard of one or more sharing economy companies, and some had used at least one of the services. 

  • Those who had used the sharing economy or who knew someone who had used it largely had positive impressions of it. When describing what they like, participants referred to four key characteristics:

    • High quality of service - Participants reported reliable service from courteous providers. 

    • Expanded choice - Participants felt that sharing economy companies expand choices by giving consumers direct access to more information and options.

    • Potentially lower cost  - Those who had used home-sharing services or transportation network companies indicated they had saved money relative to what they might have spent using more traditional options, such as a cab or a hotel.

    • Convenience - Participants viewed the sharing economy as convenient because it is perceived as always available.  At any time of the day or night, users can open an app or browse a web site to search for service providers.  For many, it is also especially convenient that no cash is needed, as services are paid for electronically.
       
  • When describing what might cause them to hesitate to use the sharing economy, responses largely centered on concerns for one’s personal safety. The four most common reasons for hesitation included:

    • Personal safety – Many participants feel particularly vulnerable due to their disability and wonder whether the service providers can be trusted.  Several question whether the providers have undergone background checks.

    • Recourse – Several participants wonder whether the sharing economy offers effective methods for resolving disputes between providers and consumers.

    • Learning curve – Although many participants generally felt that the apps and websites looked inviting and fairly straightforward, some expressed reservations about whether they would have difficulty actually learning to use them.

    • Affordability – Although many participants feel that the sharing economy offers lower-cost alternatives to traditional methods of obtaining service, some question whether the sharing economy is always in fact cheaper.

Ways to Improve Accessibility

In order to assess how the sharing economy could better address the needs of people with disabilities, we asked about nine potential changes to the sharing economy. All nine were well-received by the majority of participants. The five that received the most favorable reactions included:

  • Special Training:  Service providers receive special training in working with people with disabilities.

  • Advance Scheduling:  Users can arrange for the service ahead of time.

  • Phone Number: Users can call a telephone number to arrange for service.

  • Advance Information:  In advance of booking a room through a home-sharing service, users are able to learn easily whether and how the home is accessible to people with disabilities.

  • Accessible Vehicles:  Transportation network companies offer wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

Turtle Bay Institute, Inc., of Princeton, New Jersey, conducted this research for AARP.  The project consisted of focus groups and in-depth interviews with 43 people who have a disability or provide care to someone who does. This research was qualitative, meaning that it was designed to gather in-depth feedback from a fairly small number of individuals.  The qualitative nature of the project means that the findings should not be considered representative of the entire population of adults with disabilities.  

All media inquiries about this report should be directed to (202) 434-2560.  For all other questions, contact S. Kathi Brown, AARP Research, at SKBrown@aarp.org.

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