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 annoyance or 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 with major companies and cities 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 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. 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), ramps and curb cuts have become ubiquitous. Now 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 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 affect 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 such policies affect 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 being unable 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 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 having to worry daily about things that never cross other people’s minds. It 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 means being able to travel only to cities where accessible transportation is an option. It 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 — cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis, among many others — depend on plastic straws to access beverages and the very water they need to survive. For many, something as mundane as a straw represents independence and freedom. And the conversation around 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 our lives more difficult. It’s far more likely that we 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.
Karin Hitselberger is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and disability advocate.