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The Plastic Straw Ban Problem Ignores Accessibility

 

For many, plastic straw bans are representative of the progress in the movement against single-use plastics.  However, the bans have drawn criticism for their negative impact on individuals with motor disabilities.  Many in the disabled community rely on plastic straws to drink.

In this article, we discuss why plastic straws are still a necessity for some and how we should all support effective anti-plastic initiatives that provide accessibility to all.


 

Seattle led the Way Banning Plastic Straws

 

In 2018 Seattle became the first major city in the United States to ban plastic straws and utensils.  And they felt very proud of themselves and their action to protect our environment.  Other companies were quick to jump on the bus, hoping to share in the accolades.

The general consensus among environmental activists has encircled the globe, Taking action is the only way to support sea turtle health.

 

What if Plastic Straws are a Necessity for the Disabled?

 

But for some, plastic straws are not simply a luxury.  Plastic straws have served as a vital tool for individuals with disabilities such as swallowing problems, involuntary movements, or muscle weakness or paralysis.  Some are unable to lift cups to their mouths.  Others lack complete jaw control.  

Small, flexible, and readily-available plastic straws are the heroes that have always come to the rescue. And for many living before the transformative invention, life was far from a certainty.

For many people, plastic straws provide accessibility, are an instrument of independence, and a life necessity. That’s why people with disabilities and their allies are speaking out.

 

For the Disabled Plastic Straws are a Necessity

 

“I was about to enjoy my morning cup of tea at my favorite local coffee shop when I realized they were out of plastic straws,” disability advocate Karin Hitselberger wrote in The Washington Post. “For most people, this would be a minor annoyance or inconvenience, but for me it was a crisis. For me, a disabled person, no straw means no drink.”

“My friends jokingly call me Hazel Grace,” Madison Lawson said in Teen Vogue. The comparison refers to the main character of John Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars who carries around an oxygen tank. Lawson has a rare neuromuscular disease that makes her muscles progressively weaker over time, making it difficult for her to breathe and drink without assistance.

“Imagine wanting to go on a date and be seen as a normal girl, and having to ask the person you are with to help you with every sip you take,” Lawson continued. “There are so many things in a day that I need help with, that if something as simple as a straw can give me some independence it’s obviously going to be something I will fight to keep.”

While straw bans signal significant strides against disposable plastics, it is important to understand and assess inequities in the effects of these decisions between different communities. The fact is that blanket straw bans disproportionately impact individuals with motor disabilities who rely on plastic straws to live. Let’s break down why straw ban legislation and implementation require a more nuanced approach.

 

Plastic Straws Alternatives Aren’t Options for Some

 

The first flexible plastic straws were not sold to a restaurant — but to a hospital.  Where glass straws had reigned supreme, hospitals quickly realized that the invention of the bendy straw was revolutionary.

 

Plastic Straw Flexibility Allowed Patients to Easily Hydrate

 

The flexibility of the plastic bendy straw allowed confined patients to hydrate with ease.  Meanwhile its ability to withstand hot temperatures helped prevent drinkers from burning themselves.  Its disposable nature promised sterility, preventing the spread of communicable diseases.  Today, the modern plastic bendy straw is pegged as an early example of universal design — a fully-accessible product.

But modern alternatives often fail to satisfy the categorical trifecta: flexibility, sterility, and durability.  Paper straws often quickly fall apart, and for people with limited jaw control, paper straws can be bitten through easily.  Which can present a choking hazard.

Metal straws can burn people when used in hot liquids and may chip drinkers’ teeth when involuntarily bitten. Corn, plastic, and bamboo straws are inflexible and unfit for those with specific allergies.  And reusable straws in general require constant cleaning, which is not always feasible.

 

Don’t Demonize the Disabled by Placing Sustainability Above Accessibility

 

Karin Willison, identifying as both an environmentalist and a disability activist, understands the dilemma. Living with cerebral palsy, she is required to use straws daily to work around her muscle spasticity and lack of coordination.

“Reducing plastic waste shouldn’t include demonizing people with disabilities who need straws,” Willison wrote for The Mighty. “Unfortunately, we live in a society where not all people with disabilities have access to the support services they need, and obtaining and/or using reusable straws may be difficult or impossible for some.”

Still, she believes that individuals with disabilities must play an active role in exploring alternatives to disposable plastic straws and furthering accessibility.

 

Is There a Viable Alternative to Plastic Straws?

 

To help others curb the expenses of the lengthy trial-and-error process, Willison documented her own journey in finding a straw alternative that was suitable for her lifestyle.  She highly recommended silicone straws for a variety of people with disabilities, praising their flexibility relative to other alternatives and dishwasher safety.

Still, it is important to recognize that there is no single one-size-fits-all solution. For some, silicone straws are still not flexible enough, and price and availability may remain as obstacles.

 

Plastic Straw Bans Burden the Disabled Community

 

Consider Seattle’s recent plastic straw ban.  Current policy includes a provision that allows food service facilities to keep plastic bendy straws in supply for those who need them for physical or medical reasons. When asked if there was a supply of plastic straws for such circumstances, over a dozen Seattle chain restaurants said no.

“What Seattle Public Utilities officials are telling us as a commission, or the City Council, seems to be very different from what they’re telling the restaurants,” Shaun Bickley, a commissioner for the Seattle Commission for People with disAbilities, told Seattle Weekly.  “They never highlighted the exemption to begin with.  An exemption is only useful if people know about it and will actually act on it.”

Even if businesses are aware, it’s another uphill battle to get restaurants to comply. “So many businesses try to get around already ignoring things with [the Americans with Disabilities Act],” Jordan Carlson, mother to a son with motor-planning delays, told National Public Radio. “Sometimes you need to bring a lawsuit just to have your voice heard.”

Other cities pursuing straw bans, such as Miami Beach in Florida, don’t even have an exemption.

The result is a failure in equity by placing the burden of accessibility on the disabled community. Individuals with disabilities are already forced to carry around special devices, medications, and equipment to live their everyday lives. If carelessness in straw ban policy creation and implementation persists, many individuals with disabilities will be unable to eat and drink publicly — a matter of both dignity and survival — without special supplies, prior planning, and additional expenses.

 

Advocate for Accessibility, Awareness, and Allyship

 

We all must find creative solutions that work for people and the planet.  Our green economy should be not only environmentally sustainable, but socially equitable.  That’s why we’re sharing four ways for you to become a better advocate for disabled individuals faced with straw ban policies.

 

Support Plastic Straw Exemptions for Disabled

 

Write letters, send emails, call decision-makers, and draft your cleverest Tweets!  When drafting straw ban policies, exemption are crucial for people who need them.  If you’re not in the “room where it happens,” incorporating such an important provision can be overlooked.

For straw bans already in place, be vocal about establishing exemptions.  Spread awareness and urge true exemption implementation.  Your involvement is key.  It doesn’t matter if you’re attending a city hall meeting or Tweeting at Starbucks, there is always a way to advocate.

 

Emphasize Responsibility to Reduce Plastic Consumption

 

When we talk about the present state of plastic pollution, there are two sides of the equation to consider.  We have to consider both supply and demand.  The logic behind straw bans is simple.  Eliminating plastic straws decreases supply, thus reducing overall plastic waste.

But a similar reduction can be made by changing demand.  By educating the public and encouraging people to skip the straw if they are able to do so.

If you are the owner of a food service facility, consider providing plastic straws upon request only, and look for opportunities to communicate with your customers about the company’s dedication to cutting plastic waste.

 

Listen to the Disabled Share Their Experiences

 

There’s no question that social media can bring out the worst in us.  Discussions over recent straw bans on these platforms are no exception.  In many cases, the disabled have expressed valid concerns about straw bans and in return, been attacked and accused of laziness, ignorance, and stubbornness.

Even with good intentions, it is never your place to tell anyone how they experience the world.  When someone chooses to share their experiences and needs with you, believe them and be compassionate.

It’s important to remember that their experiences are intimate and personal.  People do not have an obligation to educate you about their circumstance simply because they claim a certain identity.

 

Share This Article with Your Community

 

Any change begins with a conversation.  Effectively promoting a sustainable lifestyle does not have to be mutually exclusive.  We must engage in an open, respectful dialogue.  What we learn from one another enables us to work towards a green economy that is accessible to all.

 

Plastic Straw Bans Burden the Disabled Community

 

Consider Seattle’s straw ban.  Even though it included a yearlong provision that allows food service facilities to keep plastic bendy straws in supply for those who need them for physical or medical reasons. When asked if there was a supply of plastic straws for such circumstances, over a dozen Seattle chain restaurants said no.

An exemption is only useful if people know about it and will actually act on it.

Even if businesses are aware, it’s another uphill battle to get restaurants to comply. “So many businesses try to get around already ignoring things with [the Americans with Disabilities Act],” Jordan Carlson, mother to a son with motor-planning delays, told National Public Radio. “Sometimes you need to bring a lawsuit just to have your voice heard.”

 

Don’t Place the Burden on the Disabled Community

 

The result is a failure, by placing the burden of accessibility on the disabled community.  Individuals with disabilities are already forced to carry around special devices, medications, and equipment to live their everyday lives.  

If carelessness in straw ban policy creation and implementation persists, many individuals with disabilities will be unable to eat and drink publicly — a matter of both dignity and survival — without special supplies, prior planning, and additional expenses.

 

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