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Listen to disabled people about why this is a problem

There are few things more heartbreaking than hearing from “progressives” that my life, and those of other disabled people, are not worth living — that we should be left to die if we can’t adhere to the latest performative progressive trend.

We are used to hearing this. In the last few weeks, it’s been on hyperdrive as the war on drinking straws has escalated, pushed by environmental groups over protests from members of the disability community.

It started with viral videos of marine life with straws wedged in their nostrils, pushed by groups like Stop Sucking and the Ocean Conservancy, and picked up by sites like Treehugger, Buzzfeed, and the Dodo. The gut public response was that all plastic straws should be banned from the face of the earth, and marine life shouldn’t be suffering for the sake of our frappuccinos. The movement that ensued was a push to ban (single-use plastic) straws. A growing list of companies like Starbucks and Hyatt are dropping straws, while Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco, New York City, and many other cities have banned or are thinking about banning plastic straws, as Hawaii and California consider statewide bans.

But the disability community reacted with alarm right away. Disability studies scholar Kim Sauder was one of the first to express concerns about the implications, bringing up an issue that many nondisabled people — and some disabled people — hadn’t considered. Some people need straws to drink, because they are unable to lift a cup to their mouths. And there are reasons more environmentally friendly alternatives are not a universal fix, such as allergy concerns with plant plastics, the risk of breaking glass straws with facial tics, or paper that disintegrates under pressure, illustrated in the form of a convenient chart by activist Sarah Packwood.

Renewable straws are not an option for many disabled people

Comparatively speaking, I’m lucky. Although I have hand tremors and facial nerve damage, I can drink fluids unassisted, and I don’t need a straw to do so — most of the time. When I do need a straw, a plastic alternative is fine. But other disabled people must use plastic straws because of the nature of their impairments. They can’t drink out of a standard cup or use a sippy cup.

Reusable straws can be hard to maintain and sterilize, and may not be safe to use, while compostable products, which can dissolve in hot liquids, present a choking and allergen hazard. It’s always going to be a good idea for restaurants and coffee shops to keep plastic straws on hand for disabled people.

Nondisabled people ask what we did before straws existed, and I have harsh news for them: We died. Or we lived in abusive, grim, isolating institutions where we didn’t need straws because we got 24-hour attendant care.

Disability rights advocate Lawrence Carter-Long notes the bendy straw was an “early example of universal design” — inclusive design that benefits disabled people, older adults, and nondisabled people alike, like the curb cuts that help wheelchair users, people with walkers, and parents with young children. Flexible straws were developed to help people drink in hospital settings. As someone who was unable to drink independently in a hospital, I can tell you the appearance of a nurse with a cup of water and a jaunty bendy straw is one of the most heavenly sights imaginable. Even with an IV running full bore, there is nothing to replace the sensation of a deep, refreshing sip.

That’s what straw ban advocates want to deny us. Bring up straws on social media, and you’ll find people so intent on banning plastic straws that they’ll list a litany of alternatives like metal, glass, paper, bamboo, pasta, or compostable plastics that don’t work or say that anyone who defends straws must be “lazy.”

What we hear when people don’t want to listen to us is that we don’t matter. This kind of rhetoric is familiar. After all, we’ve been hearing we’re drains on the system and wastes of resources for our entire lives. This is just the latest chorus of an old song, and it’s enabled by a growing list of public figures who thoughtlessly parrot rhetoric about how straws should be banned, full stop.

We can save the environment and still be inclusive towards the disabled community

Of course, disabled people share concerns about the environment. Lightweight, ubiquitous single-use products like straws, plastic utensils, plastic bags, and the like are definitely problematic — they’re prone to escaping at recycling centers, tumbling across the landscape to litter the natural environment.

We’d like to see less plastics in the world too. But straws make up a tiny fraction of what’s in the ocean. Images of wildlife impaled on straws and filling their stomachs with plastic are disturbing, but the real problem is microplastics, which result from the breakdown of plastics in industrial waste and bioaccumulate across the marine food chain.

Let me be blunt: Screeching at us about straws is not going to fix the problem of plastic. For that, we need to go higher up the supply chain, rethinking when and how we produce plastics across the board instead of shaming disabled people who are piping up about our needs. And disabled people need to be included in the conversation about reducing plastic waste — our needs matter just as much as trees and sea turtles.

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer who has appeared in publications like the Guardian, Bitch Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Rewire.News, in addition to anthologies including The Feminist Utopia Project and (Don’t) Call Me Crazy.


First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at [email protected].

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