The Fault in Our Straw Bans: On Accessibility, Awareness, and Allyship

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Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

While plastic straw bans represent progress in the movement against single-use plastics, the bans have been criticized for negatively impacting individuals with motor disabilities who rely on plastic straws to drink. In this article, we discuss why plastic straws are still a necessity for some and how you can support effective anti-plastic initiatives that are accessible to all.

Summer is in full swing, and going strawless is in season.

In July, we reported that Seattle became the first major city in the United States to ban plastic straws and utensils. Meanwhile, Starbucks announced plans to eliminate disposable plastic straws from its restaurants by 2020, followed by an official announcement by American Airlines on its intent to become the first U.S. airline to abandon single-use plastic straws and drink stirrers. While New York has been considering a ban of its own since May, San Francisco’s policy proposal is gaining traction. In the past few months, we have seen monumental actions taken by city governments and large companies, not to mention the growing star-studded list of celebrities pledging to #StopSucking.

By now, a general consensus by environmental activists has rung throughout the world wide web: sea turtle health should not be compromised for an Insta-worthy Frappuccino aesthetic.

But for some, plastic straws are not simply a luxury. For decades, the plastic straw has served as a vital tool for individuals with disabilities such as swallowing problems, involuntary movements, or muscle weakness or paralysis. Where some are unable to lift cups to their mouths and others lack complete jaw control, these small, flexible, and readily-available plastic heroes have always come to the rescue. And for many living before the transformative invention, life was far from a certainty.

Plastic straws have become a matter of accessibility, an instrument for independence, and a life necessity. That’s why people with disabilities and their allies are speaking out.

“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.

For many, alternatives to plastic straws aren’t viable options.

The first batch of modern straws was not sold to a restaurant — but to a hospital. Where glass straws reigned supreme, medical facilities quickly realized that the invention of the bendy straw would prove to be revolutionary.

The flexibility of the plastic bendy straw allowed confined patients to hydrate with ease, while its ability to withstand hot temperatures helped prevent drinkers from burning themselves. Its disposable nature promised sterility, ideal for preventing the spread of communicable diseases amongst those in vulnerable stages of health. 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 fall apart too quickly, and for people with limited jaw control, paper straws can be bitten through easily, presenting 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 possible.

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.

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.

Poorly-planned straw bans place the burden of accessibility on the disabled community.

Consider Seattle’s recently-implemented straw ban. The current policy includes 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. Yet, when asked if there was a supply of plastic straws for such circumstances, over a dozen Seattle chain restaurants said no.

“What [the 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 communicated [the exemption] to begin with, so 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.

Advocating for Accessibility, Awareness, and Allyship

At Green America, we strive to find creative business solutions that work for people and the planet, and effective allyship is central to this mission. To us, a green economy not only environmentally sustainable, but socially equitable — a commitment that can and must be made by shareholders, business leaders, and consumers alike. That’s why we’re sharing four ways for you to become a better ally for individuals with disabilities in the face of straw ban policies.

Support the implementation of plastic straw exemptions for those who need them.

Write letters, send emails, call decision-makers, and draft your cleverest Tweets! When drafting straw ban policies, it is crucial that an exemption is in place for people who need it. 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 by spreading awareness and urging true implementation. Presence is key, and whether you’re attending a city hall meeting or Tweeting at Starbucks, there is always a way to advocate.

Emphasize individual responsibility in the movement to reduce plastic consumption.

When we talk about the present state plastic pollution, there are two sides of the equation to consider — 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 — 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.

Actively listen to individuals with disabilities if they choose to share their experiences.

It’s no question that social media can bring out the worst in us, and discussions over recent straw bans on these platforms are no exception. In many cases, individuals with disabilities have expressed deep concern about straw bans and in return, received accusations 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 respond compassionately.

It is also important to remember that these experiences can be intimate and personal, and people do not carry an obligation to educate you about their circumstance simply because they claim a certain identity.

Share this article and other relevant resources with your community.

Change begins with conversation. Being an effective ally and promoting a sustainable lifestyle do not have to be mutually exclusive. When we are willing to engage in open, respectful dialogue, what we learn from one another enables us — as business leaders, shareholders, and consumers — to work compassionately and diligently towards a green economy that is accessible to all.

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