I am a proud disabled woman who was born with arthrogryposis, a physical disability that affects my arms and legs. I am also deeply committed to protecting the environment.
These two priorities ― disability rights and environmental protection ― have long been compatible. However, as the movement to ban plastic straws intensifies, I find myself increasingly wondering which is more important: disability rights or the environment?
Last month, the European Union proposed banning plastic straws as well as cotton swabs and stirrers. Previously, Vancouver, Canada, announced its intention to ban plastic straws, joining Scotland, which plans to ban plastic straws by 2020. Taiwan plans to ban single-use plastic items, including straws, by 2030.
Here in the United States, efforts to ban plastic straws are also growing rapidly. New York City, California and Hawaii have pending legislation. Cities in California, Florida, New Jersey and Washington are also trying to eliminate plastic straws in the name of helping the environment.
I fully acknowledge humans are destroying the planet, and it worries me. The Trump administration continues implementing policies that are devastating to the environment, and it is incumbent on all of us to do as much as we can to save the earth.
But at what cost? Is saving the planet more important than ensuring that people like me can drink ― something that is vital to living? Are the two mutually exclusive?
I have used plastic straws my entire life because I cannot pick up a cup. Without straws, I am unable to drink anything independently. Straws may be a luxury for some people, but for me, they are a necessity.
People with disabilities want to save the planet. We also need to be able to drink.
Like most people, I was extremely troubled by the viral video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. It led me to purchase reusable straws, which I use at home. However, I have continued to use plastic straws at restaurants and other public establishments because drinking is necessary, and plastic straws are what’s available.
I’m accustomed to having straws readily accessible to me when I’m out in public. And as more and more cities and states seek to ban them, I’ve gotten concerned about the unintended consequences these bans will have on people with disabilities. How will I drink if straws are no longer available?
Some have suggested providing reusable or compostable straws as the answer. However, as Pacific Standard writer David Perry recently explained, “metal, wood, or glass straws can be dangerous, uncomfortable, or ineffective for [some people with disabilities].” For example, metal and bamboo straws can be dangerous for people with Parkinson’s disease because they are too strong. Likewise, paper straws become soggy over time, which can become a choking hazard.
Furthermore, reusable and compostable straws are generally more expensive than plastic ones, which is important to note, because poverty is more prevalent among people with disabilities; in 2016, nearly 27 percent of people with disabilities lived below the federal poverty level compared with 10 percent of non-disabled people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. I’m fortunate that I can afford reusable straws and that my disability does not affect my ability to use them, but this isn’t the case for many in the disability community.
Until someone creates an appropriate alternative to plastic straws, they must continue to be made available to people with disabilities. They are a simple but necessary accommodation. That said, we should not and cannot give up on trying to reduce our plastic use, and I fully support cutting down on plastic straws by making them available only upon request. With this kind of on-demand system, only those who actually need straws are likely to make such requests.
Straws may be a luxury for some people, but for me, they are a necessity.
I recently went on a cruise to Bermuda. The first time I ordered a drink, it came without a straw, and I learned the cruise line no longer provides them as part of their efforts to reduce plastic. This is laudable, but I immediately worried I’d have problems getting straws during my trip, which I need to consume my drinks.
Thankfully, my worries were unfounded. I was immediately provided straws ― no questions asked ― whenever I requested them aboard the ship. Bermuda, a territory that doesn’t make plastic straws readily accessible to the public, also provides them when requested.
When implemented correctly, these on-demand systems are a promising alternative to all-out straw bans. But for these programs to work, public establishments must provide straws upon request ― no questions asked. Those of us who need them should never be shamed for wanting to drink our beverages independently.
Efforts to develop alternatives to plastic straws should continue as well, but they must include the disability community. A recent New York Times article referred to people with disabilities as the “original lifehackers,” noting: ”Products are a manifestation of relationships. Disabled people have long been integral to design processes, though we’re frequently viewed as ‘inspiration’ rather than active participants.”
People with disabilities are forced on a daily basis to find creative solutions so we can function in an environment not built for us. And we know our needs better than anyone else. It’s critical that straw manufacturers engage with the disability community to explore new, environmentally friendly straws that meet the needs of those who need them the most: people with disabilities.
It’s also important to remember that banning plastic straws are only one very small way to reduce plastic and help the environment. Just last week, a heartbreaking story of a whale that died after consuming 80 plastic bags went viral. Cities and states are increasingly instituting bans on plastic bags, and research suggests these efforts are having a positive effect.
There exists a long-standing debate about whether protecting the environment is compatible with social justice, and I think the answer is yes ― if done correctly. As someone who depends on plastic straws as a means to drink, I believe it’s important to explore alternatives that the disability community can use and afford. However, these efforts cannot be pitted against us and instead must be inclusive of our perspectives.
People with disabilities want to save the planet. We also need to be able to drink. These two positions do not have to be mutually exclusive. Banning plastic straws entirely is not the answer.
Robyn Powell is a proud disabled woman as well as an attorney, scholar and writer.