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. 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 — if I try drinking my tea without a straw, I risk choking or burning myself with the hot liquid. Not willing to take the risk, I offered my tea to my friend, knowing I just couldn’t drink it.
The banning of plastic straws continues to gain steam with major companies and cities across the globe. To reduce ocean pollution, Seattle enacted a citywide ban on plastic straws and utensils on July 1. D.C. is considering a similar measure. Starbucks this 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. For example, paper straws, which are most often cited as the best alternative, are not temperature safe, often dissolve in water and can become a choking hazard. As for lids designed to be used without a straw, they require the cup to be lifted by the user, 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), ramps and curb cuts have become ubiquitous. Now, disabled people like me can get into most buildings, but access doesn’t only mean getting into the building. It means being able to fully take part in what is going on inside the building.
Access is about the 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, regulations and laws that, however well intended, negatively impact people with disabilities. These issues include everything from seemingly innocuous bans of laptop computers in a college class to the opioid crackdown to subminimum wage laws. 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 in your college class, it can be easy to overlook how policies such as these impact someone else’s everyday life.
Imagine what it would feel like not to be able to marry the love of your life for fear of losing the benefits you need to survive. (Because most benefits are based on income, disabled people often lose them if they get married — the amount you’re allowed to have in your bank account does not double when you get married, and both people’s bank accounts are counted. This is known as the SSDI “marriage penalty.”) Imagine working all day only to be paid less than a dollar an hour thanks to laws that allow disabled people to be “time-tested” and paid less than minimum wage in places known as sheltered workshop. Imagine being in severe chronic pain and not being able to get your pain medication because your state has imposed overly restrictive limits on pills. These are common realities faced by individuals with disabilities, a community that is much bigger than many realize — nearly 1 in 5 Americans have a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and more than half of those report that their disability is severe.
Living with a disability means having to worry about things on a daily basis that never cross other people’s minds. It means worrying about whether somebody will come to help you get out of bed in the morning. It means a morning commute completely derailed by an elevator outage. Living with a disability means only being able to travel to cities where accessible transportation is an option. Living with a disability takes a lot of planning and energy and learning how to exist in a world that is not made for you. I’d rather not add, “Will they have a straw?” to my list of worries every time I go out for a cup of tea.
People with a huge range of disabilities depend on plastic straws to access beverages and the very water they need to survive: cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis, among many others. For so many people with disabilities, something as mundane as a straw represents independence and freedom. And the conversation around their environmental impact, without consideration of who uses straws and why, demonstrates how people with disabilities are often forgotten.
These policies certainly were not made with the intention of making the lives of people with disabilities more difficult. It’s far more likely that people with disabilities were not thought of at all when these policies were conceived or enacted. Our voices are so often left out of the conversation, and our needs so rarely considered, because disabled people are not seen as fully equal members of society.
Instead of just banning things, we need solutions that consider everyone. 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 while ensuring that straws are available for those who need them.
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.