Straws: A Disability Rights Issue

The effort to reduce single-use plastic materials in our daily habits is, without question, critical to the health of our planet.  In fact, those of us in marginalized communities – people of color and low-income individuals in particular – often benefit the most from reducing waste and exposure to toxins in our air and water, so we have a vested interest in contributing to and supporting such efforts.  However, more often than not, we are not included in discussions or given much thought when it comes to the decision making process and impact of environmental policies. Such is the case with the recent explosion of campaigns to eliminate the use of plastic straws.

While straws may be a mere convenience or habit for most people, to many in the disability community, straws are an essential tool to enable drinking.  Some individuals have weak upper extremities and cannot lift a beverage to their mouth.  Others have tremors in their hands and arms that make it impossible to drink without dropping or spilling a beverage.  Additionally, there are individuals who require a straw so that they can better regulate fluid intake, decreasing the risk of choking.  These are just a few examples, but there are many other reasons why someone with a disability would simply be unable to drink independently, or at all, without a straw.

Many have argued that there are alternatives available, such as plant-based biodegradable straws, paper straws, metal straws, or other reusable options.  However, most of these options do not work as equal alternatives.  Plant-based straws and paper straws disintegrate or become soft in hot beverages.  Metal straws are very hard and cause injury to some who require a more pliable material.  Carrying reusable straws can be challenging, especially if you are unable to clean it properly or independently store it on your person when out and about.

Some cities have taken the approach of asking businesses to only give out straws to those who need them/ask for them.  Others have proposed drastic measures, including exorbitant fines and even jail time for violators of plastic straw ban ordinances.  Whatever the approach, when a marginalized community is negatively impacted by proposed laws and policies, they must be listened to and must be taken seriously.

While many municipalities and states are still weighing options and approaches to solving an important environmental issue, knee-jerk responses are the equivalent of trying to put toothpaste back into a tube; many businesses are already eliminating plastic straws voluntarily to avoid potential violations, or simply to gain good favor with customers. Rather than responding to the straw challenge through customer and business education, we have chosen to villainize an essential tool of daily living for millions of Americans with disabilities.

Straw bans, on their face, don’t seem to be a social justice issue – but they unequivocally are.  It is important for our community, and the larger civil rights community, to come together and demand that we find common-sense, fair approaches to solving an environmental problem that does not punish or limit the rights of people with disabilities.  Until then, we must not ban plastic straws.

Melissa Male is a consultant with EJS, currently serving as the Statewide Coordinator of the California Civil Rights Coalition.