The Straw Fan

Over the last few months I’ve seen a number of groups calling for a ban on disposable plastic straws. Campaigns such as ‘Straws Suck’, ‘The Final Straw’ and ‘The Last Plastic Straw’ are but a few of them. Petitions putting pressure on big supermarkets to stop selling straws have hundreds of thousands of signatures, and politicians, including Environment Secretary Michael Gove, have put their weight behind the cause.

To many people this will seem like a straightforwardly good move. Our disposable consumer culture and over-reliance on plastics have been having a hugely negative impact on our environment for decades. There have been devastating images of the world’s oceans clogged with plastic, and harrowing photos of animals injured or killed by plastics.

I care deeply about our natural world and am keen to see our resources used responsibly. But I’m also one of the many disabled people on whom an outright ban on straws would have a very negative effect.

Plastic straws have been described by some campaigners as “frivolous”, “unnecessary” and an “absurdity”. But for disabled people like me the simple straw is an essential aid that makes the difference between being able to drink and not.

Involuntary tics in my arms mean that I can’t hold an open mug or glass without spilling the contents all over the place. At home I use lidded camping cups, but when I’m out and about I rely on plastic straws to enable me to drink independently. I buy biodegradable straws online and carry them with me at all times, but this isn’t foolproof and being able to ask for a straw in bars or cafés when I run out makes drinking away from home much less stressful. But I’ve already noticed that they’re disappearing in many places.

When I’ve seen disabled people raise concerns about this online they often receive a barrage of criticism, advice or questions. In an attempt to help activists understand the concerns and perspectives of disabled people here are some answers to the most commonly made points:

1) “There are plenty of alternatives – use paper, metal, silicone or bamboo straws instead of plastic ones.” Many disabled people, (including myself) use straws to drink both hot and cold drinks, and I also often use them for soup. Many of the alternatives to plastic aren’t suitable for hot liquids. Additionally if you have poor control over your head movement or your arms, rigid straws pose a risk of injury – for me, a metal straw would be too dangerous to use safely. If you have an impairment that impacts on your reach, or on your body control, straws need to be bendy, not rigid. And paper straws are no good because they get soggy and rip almost immediately.

2) “Just carry your own straws with you wherever you go.” For a disabled person, leaving the house can already feel like setting out on a major expedition. In addition to the usual items we all take with us, I also need to remember, and find space for, my medication, spare pants, and the emergency protective clothing I need, like my helmet and arm guards. For many disabled people carrying a bag is not possible because of their mobility, dexterity or strength. Even though I do carry straws with me there have been plenty of occasions when I’ve run out and only been able to drink because a bar or café has had its own supply. Providers of any goods or service have a responsibility under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people – providing straws is an example of one such adjustment.

3) “What did disabled people do before plastic straws?” Before straws, drinking meant relying on someone else to hold and control your drink, or using specialist drinking aids. This made drinking much more complicated and labour-intensive, and meant that how much you drank, and when, was at someone else’s discretion. It lacked dignity and, pardon the pun, it sucked. While, as I say, I totally support campaigns against the over-use of plastics, I strongly urge campaigners to bear in mind the following points:

Consider Different Perspectives – An outright ban would leave many disabled people without a straightforward, dignified way to drink.

Be Realistic – If service providers are compelled to stop providing plastic straws, is it really likely that they will source environmentally friendly alternatives rather than just stop offering them at all? It’s much more likely that suitable alternatives would be offered only if became mandatory.

Don’t Demonise Straws – Demonising straws, describing them as ‘frivolous’ or the people who use them as ‘selfish’, sends very negative messages to those of us who rely on them for our most basic of needs – access to water. Campaigns that fail to acknowledge the impact of a ban on disabled people send the message that they don’t matter. Does this reflect what campaigners really believe?

Listen to Disabled People and Their Advocates – Disabled people know what we need, so please listen to us. I’ve seen too many comments and posts that dismiss disabled people’s concerns, or challenge us about what we require. Giving unsolicited advice on how to drink is patronising and, unless given by a health professional like at OT who has assessed that person’s drinking and swallowing capabilities, potentially dangerous.

For me the most sensible approach includes the following:

  • A shift to straws being provided only on request
  • Tighter requirements about how plastic is disposed of
  • Greater investment in biodegradable and recyclable materials

I appreciate that if using a straw isn’t a vital part of your day-to- day life this issue might seem trivial, and the strength of feeling amongst disabled people seems to have surprised many campaigners. Over the last few days I’ve read comments like: “I don’t understand the anger” or “Why not focus on real problems?

It should be obvious that not being able to drink is a ‘real problem’ and for disabled people much of the anger comes from our basic requirements not being considered in proposed legislation. The cumulative impact of not being thought about, of having to justify our needs, and of having our bodies or way of living problematised is exhausting and demoralising.

I want to live in a world that uses its resources thoughtfully and sustainably, but I also want to live in one that’s inclusive. I know that with careful thought and planning, this is entirely possible.

A couple of years ago when I was asked to talk to a group of design students about the inventions that made my life easier, I drew up a list of my most essential items. These included my wheelchair, alarm system, bath lift and medication reminders, but what came top of the list was straws.

I feel compelled to challenge the widely-held belief that straws are pointless. For many of us the reverse is true: they’re empowering, liberating, and essential items that bring independence and essential sustenance. An outright ban would make my life and that of many other people infinitely harder.

We must tackle our society’s plastic problem, but let’s do so together in a way that considers different perspectives and requirements.

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