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Banning Plastic Straws and How it Affects People with Disabilities

We recognize that plastic contributes to environmental issues. We have likely all seen videos of marine animals suffering after ingesting a plastic straw. As a result of our exposure to the problems, more and more individuals and restaurants are in support of banning plastic straws. In response, restaurants have started to adopt the use of paper straws and other alternatives. However, what appears to have been forgotten in this movement is that people with disabilities regularly rely on plastic straws. For many, plastic straws are a way to drink independently. Banning plastic straws will disadvantage people with disabilities.

Banning Plastic Straws

The Environmental Issue with Plastic Straws

Plastic straws are harmful to the environment. Notably, a study found that plastic straws were the 11th most found ocean trash. That is a troubling number since it takes up to 200 years for a plastic straw to decompose. If that number isn’t scary enough, consider that 1 million birds and 100,000 marine animals die each year from eating plastic. Without a doubt, it is important that we all consider how we can lessen the damage that plastic straws cause on our environment.

Plastic Straws Among People with Disabilities

However, banning plastic straws will harm people with disabilities. Plastic straws have three qualities that make them helpful to people with disabilities. Plastic straws are:

  1. Flexible enough for users to bend them to their mouths or manipulate with their chins.
  2. Soft and won’t cause injuries to people who have muscular tremors or to anyone who may bite them.
  3. Inexpensive, meaning that restaurants and other locations can give them instead of asking users to purchase and maintain their own straws.

To see how plastic straws help people, consider the usefulness of plastic straws to people with impaired movements. For people with these impairments, raising a glass to their mouth and tipping the liquid into their mouths without spilling the liquid is a difficult task.

For a start, people with cerebral palsy may experience:

  • Stiffness
  • Involuntary movements
  • Balance problems

Those with Parkinson’s disease experience symptoms, such as:

  • Slowed movements
  • Rigid muscles
  • Limb tremors

Similarly, people with Alzheimer’s may experience a loss in motor skill.

Plastic straws ease the process of drinking by eliminating the need for the person to raise the glass to their mouths, thereby providing a way to drink independently. While other options offer some solutions for those with impaired movement, they also come with their own issues.

Alternative Options

An alternative that you may be familiar with is paper straws. The good thing about paper straws is that they are fully biodegradable, meaning that micro-organisms will digest them. But maybe you’ve used a paper straw before and had it become soggy. When soggy, a paper straw becomes a choking hazard. If a person takes longer to finish the drink, then the choking risk goes up.

Another option is metal straws. But these too can problematic. For example, metal straws, or any straw that is inflexible or hard, can cause injuries to people who have Parkinson’s or to anyone who may bite them. Metal straws also conduct heat, making them unusable with hot liquids.

Silicone straws have many of the same advantages as plastic straws, including:

  • Available straight or bent
  • Soft and safe to bite or chew
  • Safe to use for hot drinks

Of course, unlike plastic straws, it is not practical for businesses to provide silicone straws as one-time use items.  Nor, as we mentioned above, is it fair to ask people who need these straws to burden the cost and inconvenience.

Think of the difficulty that some would have when no straw at all is available. As mentioned, this alternative is forgetting everyone for whom it is not easy to drink without a straw. Of course, people could bring their own straws. But it is unfair to expect people with disabilities to bear the cost and trouble of buying and maintaining their own straws.

Moving Forward

It is vital that we pay attention to the effect that our waste has on our environment. However, when we search for solutions to our problems, we have to do it together. When everyone is not part of the conversation, new problems are created. For example, if we don’t include people with disabilities in the planning of public areas,  we run the risk of excluding people.

In this particular case, it seems that those who did not need plastic straws determined that banning plastic straws could be done without inconveniencing anyone. The problem in these cases is that those with disabilities were not included from the outset. Thus, their concerns were an afterthought.  If we are going to overcome the issues that our society encounters, we will need to include all of our voices.