The Straw’s Not the Thing

I was hurting everywhere. I had spent a mere two days, just 48 hours as the sole caregiver to a preschooler with mobility disabilities, and I hurt in muscles I hadn’t known I had. Also, my heart hurt. Not for my cheerful, smart-as-a-whip, everything-else-going-for-him charge; his life will never be easy, but he’ll be fine. My heart hurt — and continues to hurt — for the fights continuing to be waged on social media about what people with disabilities need and deserve. Specifically? Straws.

masaaki-komori-668201-unsplashMasaaki Komori

It started in 2015 with a horrendous video of a sea turtle. It resurfaced recently when Vancouver banned straws. Despite concerns from advocates for the elderly and people with disabilities:

Ian Tostenson, the president of the BC Restaurant and Food Services Association, said that while it will be an adjustment, the environmental benefits outweigh any potential financial problems that will come from phasing out single-use straws and other containers….

In February, city council in Malibu, Calif., voted to ban retailers from selling plastic straws and utensils to customers effective June 1. Scotland and Taiwan both have plans to nationally ban single-use straws. In April, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that her country will work to ban single-use straws and cotton swabs in an attempt to nationally ban plastic waste by 2042. She urged other Commonwealth countries − including Canada − to do the same.

Similar bans have been implemented in the last year by Alaska AirlinesMacDonaldsSeattle, Starbucks and Disney, and the HiltonHyatt and Marriot Hotels. More may be coming in New York CityWashington, D.C.San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon.

The straws are not the point here, but before I get to the point, some facts about straws:

But this well-intentioned campaign assumes that single-use plastics, such as straws and coffee stirrers, have much to do with ocean pollution. And that assumption is based on some highly dubious data. Activists and news media often claim that Americans use 500 million plastic straws per day, for example, which sounds awful. But the source of this figure turns out to be a survey conducted by a nine-year-old. Similarly, two Australian scientists estimate that there are up to 8.3 billion plastic straws scattered on global coastlines. Yet even if all those straws were suddenly washed into the sea, they’d account for about .03 percent of the 8 million metric tons of plastics estimated to enter the oceans in a given year.

In fact, with Starbucks announcing that they’ll stop using straws, they’ll now be putting more, not less plastic in the hands of consumers:

… customers are at best breaking even under Starbucks’ strawless scheme, or they are adding between .32 and .88 grams to their plastic consumption per drink [and] most of the stuff that is put in recycling bins still winds up at the dump. [Starbucks] did not address, nor did it dispute, that its transition to strawless lids would increase its overall plastic consumption.

The weight of plastic—not the raw number of plastic objects used, or whether those objects are recyclable or not—is what should really concern environmentalists [because] most plastic, whatever form it enters the ocean as, will eventually be broken up into much smaller pieces known as micro-plastics. It is these micro-plastics that form those giant ocean garbage patches, pile up on the ocean floor, and leech into the stomachs and flesh of sea creatures.

Reducing the amount of micro-plastics in the ocean thus requires cutting down on the aggregate weight of plastics entering the ocean each year. It cannot be stressed enough that straws, by weight, are a tiny portion of this plastic.

Starbucks Bans Plastic Straws, Winds Up Using More Plastic

Moreover, the new Starbucks lid and many other compostable plastic alternatives are made from corn derivatives.

Corn allergy can also be life threatening and the ADA recognizes anaphylactic corn allergy as a disability…. [And] life threatening allergies follow the same biological mechanism regardless of whether the cause is a bee sting or an antibiotic or a peanut or another food allergen. People who suffer life threatening reactions from trace exposures have a reasonable need to know whether compostable plastic straws, forks, and other implements are made from their allergen. People with allergies already get a cup of water when they can’t trust the menu at a coffee shop; it gets that much harder when neither the straw or the cup can be trusted.

The Last Straw: Starbucks Ignores Allergy Risks in Straws

And compostable straws aren’t really the answer they’re hyped to be:

But first, prove that these lids are somehow better or easier to recycle than the straws, and then we’ll talk. The lids are still made of plastic, and again, the coffee giant has had a hard enough time addressing its cup-waste issue. Compostable straws, likewise, are only beneficial in an appropriate composting facility; large swaths of the world don’t have access to municipal composting facilities. In other words: Paper straws will … only break down as advertised if they successfully land in a composting facility — not a backyard pile or a landfill.

Why the World Is Hating on Plastic Straws Right Now

There are vastly more effective ways to reduce the horror of plastics in our oceans, but again, that’s not the point here. Still, here’s a couple facts about solutions:

A recent survey by scientists affiliated with Ocean Cleanup, a group developing technologies to reduce ocean plastic, offers one answer. Using surface samples and aerial surveys, the group determined that at least 46 percent of the plastic in the garbage patch by weight comes from a single product: fishing nets. Other fishing gear makes up a good chunk of the rest.

The impact of this junk goes well beyond pollution. Ghost gear, as it’s sometimes called, goes on fishing long after it’s been abandoned, to the great detriment of marine habitats. In 2013, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science estimated that lost and abandoned crab pots take in 1.25 million blue crabs each year.

This is a complicated problem. But since the early 1990s, there’s been widespread agreement on at least one solution: a system to mark commercial fishing gear, so that the person or company that bought it can be held accountable when it’s abandoned.

Plastic Straws Aren’t the Problem

A 10% reduction in fishing waste would, by my calculations, be 1,190% more effective than even a 100% reduction in straws:

That’s where all that anti-straw energy could really help. In 1990, after years of consumer pressure, the world’s three largest tuna companies agreed to stop intentionally netting dolphins. Soon after, they introduced a “dolphin safe” certification label and tuna-related dolphin deaths declined precipitously. A similar campaign to pressure global seafood companies to adopt gear-marking practices — and to help developing regions pay for them — could have an even more profound impact. Energized consumers and activists in rich countries could play a crucial role in such a movement.

Plastic Straws Aren’t the Problem

That consumer could be you!

“There’s so many people who rely on straws 100% of the time,” [20-year-old university student with a disability] Chloe Tear explains. “We could be targeting so many other avenues of plastic like packaging in shops… there are so many alternative routes to go down.”

But that’s not my point, either.

What is my point?

My real point is, people with disabilities struggle every day, all day long to be afforded the rights and dignity of human beings, to be addressed as intelligent adults, to be included in civic life, to have a social life, to have a right to a job and accumulation of wealth, and a thousand other things the rest of us take for granted. Even people who think they’re helping are too often, at best, not listening, if not insulting and condescending.

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….

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.

Plastic straw bans are the latest policy to forget the disability community

And before you tell me that people with disabilities have a legally protected right to reasonable accommodation (which they do!), I want you to do two small experiments with me. The first is a thought experiment:

Think of your five favorite restaurants, and then imagine you use a powerchair. Could you get through the front door, or are there steps … even just one? How much space is there between the tables? Would you be able to get between the other tables to your own? Would you be able to fit yourself at a table without blocking the aisle for waiters carrying heavy trays of sizzling fajita skillets over your head? Could you fit into a bathroom stall with your powerchair and still be able to close the door? What if the only accessible stall were clogged? Or filthy? Or the lock was broken?

The second is an actual experiment:

Spend one day moving through your life as if you had a mobility impairment and cannot go up or down stairs or escalators. How do you get to work? To school? To that bar with your friends? Is there an elevator? How far out of your way do you have to go to get on that elevator? How often is it out of service? Does it perpetually smell like piss? Don’t forget street curbs! How far down the block do you have to go to find the curb cut? How many people are standing in the curb cut who don’t need it?

When I began pulling a heavy wheelie bag for my adjunct professor job, I was astonished at how often I had no choice but to pick up my 40+ pound bag and haul it up a staircase, and how often my fellow commuters were rude about the amount of space I took up to do so.

“This is a city that truly I do feel disabled in,” Mr. Pangilinan said. “If everything was working 100 percent, and had elevators, my disability would be transparent. It wouldn’t limit me. But because of the lack of elevators, my disability really comes to the forefront in terms of what activities I can engage in, in the city. It’s tough psychologically to be reminded of that.”

New York City’s Subway System Violates Local and Federal Laws

Yes, for almost thirty years, it has been settled law in this land that all businesses, sidewalks, public transportation and public facilities must be accessible to people with disabilities. In theory, this means that every new business, significant renovation and new building in the last 30 years is required to be accessible, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

In practice, the Americans with Disabilities Act means that people with disabilities have the right to spend many thousands of dollars to sue individual locations to obtain their legal rights to accommodation. (And in the Trump Administration, even those protections may begin to disappear, because Republicans are worried about people “faking” disabilities.) 

And just because an exemption is written into law doesn’t mean businesses will comply, even if they know about it. “So many businesses try to get around already ignoring things with [the Americans With Disabilities Act] until someone says, ‘I need a ramp or wider hallway or ramp in bathroom or Braille menu,’ ” says Jordan Carlson. “Sometimes you need to bring a lawsuit just to have your voice heard.”

Why People With Disabilities Want Bans On Plastic Straws To Be More Flexible

The legal process takes years — complaints against the New York City subway have languished for more than a decade — and in order to continue receiving needed benefits, people with disabilities are often required to maintain a net worth well below the poverty line.

“I think that the disability community is rightfully up in arms because not everybody can afford a trendy, little cupholder on their chair. Not everybody can afford to buy 10,000 straws, or any straws. People like me are often living in poverty, sadly.”

Why Plastic Straw Bans Aren’t Inclusive

… the conversation echoes a largely held opinion in the environmental movement about who “deserves” resources. The assumption that disabled lives are worth less is at the core of these conversations, and a failure to reckon with that warped premise alienates the disability community. Implying that nondisabled people need and deserve more resources than disabled people also distracts from finding real solutions to issues such as climate change, resource scarcity, and pollution.

Valuable Resources: The Ableist Fight Over Plastic Straws

We’re already seeing violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act with plastic straw bans:

[The Seattle] ban was supposed to allow customers to get straws on demand if they needed them. NPR reports disability activists there asked several fast food places if they had straws, but they didn’t.

Fritz said: “The Americans with Disabilities Act has provisions that do require businesses to make reasonable modifications to their certain, normal practices when necessary, so that people with disabilities have access to those things. No court has specifically addressed whether a business has to provide plastic straws.”

Some companies that have banned straws nationwide have committed to doing this, including Starbucks…. But the issue of straws may just be a symptom of a larger issue for the disability community: Getting included and being heard. [emphasis mine]

Why Plastic Straw Bans Aren’t Inclusive

The real problem here is that people with disabilities want to be included in the conversation. They don’t just want the law to carve out exceptions for “reasonable accommodation.” They want to be part of the discussion of what “reasonable” and “accommodation” mean, and they want us to actually listen and believe their answers.

I’ve been in this ecological battle for longer than many newcomers have been alive. I get uncomfortable and angry when I see non-disabled people behave as though they know the answer to this dilemma in exchanges that can get heated, if not abusive. Why do we need plastic straws? Won’t paper ones do? What about bamboo? Or glass? Metal? These questions are not easy to answer. Paper straws generally don’t do well in hot liquids and I’ve yet to find decent flexible ones. This is important to get the angle right for safe drinking, when you can’t hold a cup or even if another person holds it for you. Metal ones are often fat, better used for smoothies and not good if you have a biting issue. I tried silicone straws, which were too soft and fat to be reliably useful. [emphasis mine]

I rely on plastic straws and baby wipes. I’m disabled – I have no choice

What does she mean by abusive? Everyone I know with a disability has talked about such experiences.

There are times when I go out and the waiter asks my companion for my order instead of me. I’ve gone through creepy, dirty side entrances just to get into a restaurant. I’ve been called “the wheelchair” by front-of-house staff when they commiserate on which table to place me, since I apparently take up too much space.

The Last Straw

People with disabilities might be told by doctors that they’re not disabled enough for pain medication, or not disabled because they might eventually not need their wheelchair, or told by a Starbucks barista and the manager that they’re not disabled enough to use the accessible bathroom, or not disabled enough for a publicized disability discount, or told by a potential employer that they’re “too disabled” to get a job but told by the government that they’re “not disabled enough” to get benefits, or told by the government that they’re not disabled enough for accessible parking, or deemed disabled enough by the government to get an accessible parking pass but abused by other citizens for not being disabled enough to use it….

I’ve had to take that eye out at airports in order to prove to security that I’m not faking blindness in order to smuggle things on board my plane. I’ve had people on the street tell me I’m not blind and that I don’t deserve to have the cane…. Having to tell people that I’m real, that I can’t see them, and that my sight really is worse than theirs shouldn’t be a part of my day-to-day life. [emphasis mine]

I May Be Disabled, But People Don’t Think I’m Blind Enough

In the same week that I was caring for my disabled nephew, my partner and I also took my grandmother out for a walk and a nice dinner. We helped her into the car, loaded up her wheelchair, and drove into town. After a walk by the river, we picked a restaurant. My grandmother has an accessible parking pass, but when we arrived, the two accessible parking spaces beside the entrance to the museum were occupied, so my partner dropped us off in front of the restaurant and parked the car at the far end of the lot. In the middle of dinner, he abruptly got up. “I’m going to re-park the car.” I looked over my shoulder and saw that one accessible parking space had become available.

By the time my partner came around with the car, there was a massive red pickup truck parked, not in the accessible parking space, but in the cross-hatched space beside the accessible space. Before pulling into the parking space, my partner got out to speak to the driver of the pickup, which did not have accessible tags. “You can’t park there. We need that space to get the wheelchair to the car door.” The driver backed up his truck, but pulled right back into the spot, six inches to the right. When my partner confronted him again, he said, “I’m the cleaner in this building. I have to park here because I have to carry my vacuum cleaner inside. I do this all the time.” And then he walked away. I should, in retrospect, have taken a picture and tweeted it to the local police station, because it is explicitly illegal under federal law to park like that, and for good reason.

Meanwhile, a smart, ambitious young woman who uses a wheelchair here in New Jersey is speaking out because if she accepts an internship (or later a job) that pays above the poverty line, she’ll lose the benefits that allow her to live independently.

This constant doubt, harassment and threatening by government, business, coworkers, friends and perfect strangers leads many people to internalize doubt about their right to even the accommodations and support they do have. Many feel guilty about receiving benefits, or about getting an adaptive home grant that might help another veteran more, or are afraid to ask for a seat on the bus because they can walk.

And that brings us back to straws….

A spokesman for Seattle Public Utilities confirmed to NPR that the city’s new plastic straw ban does include a waiver allowing restaurants to give disposable, flexible plastic straws to customers who need them for physical or medical reasons. But Carter-Long and Bickley say there doesn’t seem to be widespread awareness of the exemption. Bickley says he asked over a dozen Seattle chain restaurants — including McDonald’s and Chipotle — “if they had plastic straws available for people with allergies or need, and they told me no.”

Why People With Disabilities Want Bans On Plastic Straws To Be More Flexible

People with disabilities are already receiving abuse for their very reasonable need for straws, both online and in the real world.

While it is being discussed, my city, Portland, Oregon, has yet to ban or place limitations on the use of plastic straws. Yet, in the last few months, despite my visible need for physical assistance and wheelchair, I have been subjected to more than one server lightly chastising my straw request or explaining their discomfort with the environmental impact of straws. The first time it was surprising, but I now casually brace myself to defend my straw needs in case any lectures pop up over my ice water.

I Need Straws and Flexibility

We need to start respecting and listening to people with disabilities. There are plenty of voices to choose from.

As demand increases for alternatives to plastic, so do the voices from the disability community sharing their concerns about how these bans will create additional labor, hurdles, and difficulties. On social media, many disabled people have been sharing their stories and keeping it 100 percent real. I observed and experienced all sorts of microaggressions and outright dismissal of what disabled people are saying online….

People have told me online that I still have access to biodegradable straws at Starbucks, despite my reasons for using plastic ones. People have told me to bring my own reusable straws without thinking about the extra work that entails. Why would a disabled customer have to bring something in order to drink while non-disabled people have the convenience and ability to use what is provided for free? This is neither just, equitable, nor hospitable.

The Last Straw

It’s been two weeks, and I’m already tired of this fight. Imagine having to fight for your dignity every day of your life.

I understand that this fight hits me especially hard because of the weekend I spent caring for a family member with a disability for whom plastic straws are a necessary accommodation. That personal connection made it especially hard to watch as events unfolded over social media, to observe how people with disabilities were saying, “Hey, this will make it even more difficult for me to participate in the world, can we talk about other options?” but people who don’t seem to have that experience of the world were reflexively responding, “Nope, this is the solution, this is what we’re doing.”

I realize this isn’t news to actual people with disabilities, but it’s an upsetting new world to me.

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