Bans on plastic straws are the latest policy to forget the disability community
I was about to enjoy my morning cup of tea at my favorite coffee shop when I realized there were no plastic straws. For most people, this would be a minor inconvenience. For me, a disabled person, no straw means no drink — if I try drinking my tea without a straw, I risk choking or burning myself with the hot liquid. Unwilling to take the risk, I offered the tea to my friend.
The banning of plastic straws is gaining steam worldwide. To reduce ocean pollution, Seattle enacted a citywide ban on plastic straws and utensils on July 1. Washington, D.C., is considering a similar measure. Starbucks last week joined the push to ban single-use plastic straws, following an announcement by McDonald's that it would no longer offer plastic straws in its Ireland and Britain locations.
While reusable straws and redesigned cups may be a great solution for most people, they are not an option for many people with disabilities. Paper straws, most often cited as the best alternative, are not temperature safe, often dissolve in water and can become a choking hazard. Lids designed to be used without a straw require the user to lift the cup, which many people cannot do.
The conversation then shifts to what people with disabilities themselves should be doing to solve the problem. The inevitable questions —"Why don't you bring your own straws?" "Why don't you use a metal straw?" — miss the larger point. This isn't about straws. It's about access.
Almost 30 years after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), we can get into most buildings. But access doesn't mean only getting into the building: It means being able to take part fully in what is going on inside. Access is about quality of life, and being able to have the same experiences and opportunities as a nondisabled person, with some adaptations.
Plastic straw bans are only the latest example of policies, rules, and laws that, however well intended, negatively affect people with disabilities. These include everything from bans of laptop computers in a college class to the opioid crackdown. If you don't need a straw to take a sip of water, pain medication to deal with the effects of a chronic illness, or a laptop to take notes, it can be easy to overlook the effect on someone else's everyday life. Nearly one in five Americans has a disability, with more than half of those reporting severe disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Living with a disability means worrying about whether somebody will come help you get out of bed in the morning. It means a morning commute completely derailed by an elevator outage. It takes a lot of planning and energy and learning how to exist in a world not made for you. I'd rather not add "Will they have a straw?" to my list of worries.
People with a huge range of disabilities depend on plastic straws for the very water they need to survive. The conversation around environmental impact, without consideration of who uses straws and why, demonstrates how people with disabilities are often forgotten.
Our voices are so often left out of the conversation because disabled people are not seen as fully equal members of society.
We don't have to choose between making the world more sustainable or making it more accessible. With a bit of creative thinking, we can achieve both. Restaurants can make plastic straws available upon request instead of offering them with every drink. This would still dramatically reduce waste.
We live in a beautiful, diverse world, and it's important to protect it. But it's also important to protect the quality of life for the people living in it.
Karen Hitselberger is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and disability advocate.