Plastic Straws – Why People With Disabilities and Plastic Straws
It was a hot day at the zoo when Jordan Carlson’s son, who has motor-planning delays, got thirsty. “We went to the snack bar and found out they had a ‘no straw’ policy,” Carlson says. “It was a hot day and he couldn’t drink.”
Their only option was to leave the park and look for a business that sold drinks with a straw. Without one, her son can’t drink beverages. At home they use reusable straws and she tries to keep some on hand when they leave the house, but “I’m human and sometimes I forget,” Carlson explains. People with disabilities have to be much more conscious of what businesses and communities offer, Carlson says.
On social media, many people are ecstatic about the crush of cities and businesses pledging to ban plastic straws once and for all. Ever since a video showing a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose went viral, campaigns like #StopSucking for a strawless ocean have gained considerable traction. Seattle this month implemented a citywide ban on plastic straws, Starbucks announced on Monday that it will phase out the use of plastic straws by 2020, and many other municipalities and businesses are likely to follow suit. As one Twitter user posted, “My waiter asked ‘Now, do we want straws OR do we want to save the turtles?’ and honestly we all deserve that environmental guilt trip.”
But for many people with disabilities, going without plastic straws isn’t a question of how much they care about dolphins or sea turtles; it can be a matter of life or death.
There are many alternatives to plastic straws — paper, biodegradable plastics and even reusable straws made from metal or silicone. But paper straws and similar biodegradable options often fall apart too quickly or are easy for people with limited jaw control to bite through. Silicone straws are often not flexible — one of the most important features for people with mobility challenges. Reusable straws need to be washed, which not all people with disabilities can do easily. And metal straws, which conduct heat and cold in addition to being hard and inflexible, can pose a safety risk.
“Disabled people have to find ways to navigate through the world because they know it was not made for us,” says Lei Wiley-Mydske, an autism activist who has autism herself. “If someone says, ‘This does not work for me,’ it’s because they’ve tried everything else.”
“Also, what if you decide on the spur of the moment to go have a drink with friends after work but forgot your reusable straw that day?” adds Lawrence Carter-Long, communications director for the national Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. “[That] doesn’t leave a lot of room for spontaneity — something nondisabled folks get to largely take for granted.”
On social media, many people have responded to claims that people with disabilities need plastic straws by asking what people did before plastic straws were invented. “They aspirated liquid in their lungs, developed pneumonia and died,” says Shaun Bickley, co-chair of the Seattle Commission for People with DisAbilities, a volunteer organization that’s supposed to advise the city council or agencies on disabilities issues.