Why Straw Bans Are About More Than Straws

When I originally published this post back in July of 2018, there was debate about efforts by some companies (Starbucks, McDonald’s) and cities (San Francisco, Seattle) to ban the usage of plastic straws within their entities. Then, more recently, I heard that the United Kingdom will ban straws, among other plastics, starting in April 2020. Many environmentalists think it’s important to make sure that we reduce plastic waste and therefore reduce our usage of plastic straws, while many disability activists argue that there are currently no feasible alternatives to a single-use plastic straw.[1]

Personally, I think a ban must wait until there are feasible alternatives for people of all levels of ability. But I think this discussion on straws needs to be about more than straws.

Namely, we need to discuss our society’s lack of willingness to listen to the physically disabled, and the proposed straw ban is just the latest example of this.

Consider this—in spite of the fact that many disability activists (including many who have the lived experience of being disabled) have been raising concerns about such bans, the entities that planned to ban plastic straws are still going ahead. If we, as a society, listened to the disabled, wouldn’t we at least hear their arguments? Wouldn’t we at least consider for a second why they are saying what they’re saying? These, of course, are rhetorical questions, because in spite of many activists saying that other alternatives to plastic straws do not work, entities are still going ahead with their plans to ban usage of the single-use plastic straw.

Sadly, this pattern of not listening to the disabled goes well beyond straws. Here are a few of the many examples of parts of our society not listening to the disabled:

  1. Airline seats continue to shrink. In spite of many activists saying that airline seats have shrunk to the point that the disabled cannot get out safely in the event of an emergency, there are still successful attempts to shrink airline seats even further yet.
  2. We continue to view people with disabilities as inspirations. There have been oh so many times when people with disabilities have told others—in writing, in-person, through YouTube and through many other means—to stop viewing them as inspirations for just doing tasks in daily life that the rest of us perform.[2] If our society listened to them, then we would stop viewing these individuals as inspirations. But alas, many of us don’t listen.
  3. There are attempts to dilute the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Disability activists have, on many occasions, warned against any legislation that undermines the ADA, yet amazingly such legislation to weaken the ADA passed the House of Representatives earlier this year. If we listened to people with disabilities, such a bill would be in the garbage can, not passed in the House.

Not listening to people with disabilities is very much a pattern of our society. This pattern did not start with the straw issue, and I fear that it will not end with the straw issue. However, it is about time that we change and actually start listening to people with disabilities.

Please note that I will not publish a post on Tuesday, May 28, 2019.

[1] Paper straws apparently disintegrate with hot drinks while metal straws are both inflexible and a safety risk because of how they conduct heat and cold. This NPR piece covers the issues with metal and paper straws much more thoroughly than I do in my post: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/07/11/627773979/why-people-with-disabilities-want-bans-on-plastic-straws-to-be-more-flexible.

[2] If you would like a more detailed explanation of why it’s a problem to just view people with disabilities as inspirations, I highly recommend reading this article from Everyday Feminism: https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/04/stop-calling-disabled-people-inspirational/.

Eight drinking straws in rainbow colors
I can’t think of anything more appropriate for a post involving straws than a picture of straws. By Horia Varlan from Bucharest, Romania (Eight drinking straws in rainbow colors) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

12 Replies to “Why Straw Bans Are About More Than Straws”

  1. I am researching for a piece on open-mindedness and came across a multitude of examples such this. There is so much closed-mindedness out there—it’s quite scary (specifically because many who claim to be open minded are indeed the epitome for close-minded). So many people would rather be right rather than listen to the ideas and opinions of others. Open minded people ask questions, are able to hold more than one thought in their heads at the same time, accept that their ideas might be challenged and above all, recognize that they may be wrong. These decisions are being made by the most close-minded people ever—our politicians. I agree the problem is much bigger than straws and it’s going to take an army of TRULY open-minded people to effect changes that are good for the whole of society.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Open-mindedness is extremely important, without a doubt. I agree about the harm that closed-mindedness is causing on this and many other issues. Out of curiosity, though, what would your idea be of an open-minded approach on the straw ban issue? I’m just curious to hear your thoughts on that.


  2. If I have learned anything from working in the community, I have learned to listen to the people that will be affected. If people with disabilities are saying this is a problem, we should listen. But as this world goes, most people don’t listen until it is at their doorstep/their problem. Sighhhh

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for an enlightening post, Brendan! I was not aware of the issue of a viable replacement for plastic straws, and like many others thought paper straws would be much more environmental-friendly and serve the purpose just as well. Obviously, I was wrong. That said … it is imperative we stop the disposal willy-nilly of plastics, so I hope there are serious efforts afoot to develop a feasible alternative. As the parent of a now-grown severely disabled child, I have long been aware of and attuned to the needs of the disabled, but I admit I was ignorant of the plastic straw issue. Thanks again for opening my eyes!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome!

      I too strongly favor curtailing the willy nilly use of plastics in general. Part of that commitment, however, is that our society needs to find alternatives to plastic that are both friendly to the environment and usable for all people. Unless I’m missing something, that’s not really the case with straws, yet. Hopefully that changes sooner rather than later. I’m glad my post was enlightening.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am amazed, when I look around my house, how much plastic there is that will eventually hit the trash … plastic bottles, bags, flower pots, laundry baskets, etc. I’m actually surprised that no viable alternative has yet been discovered. Recycling is so important, and yet too few are doing it. Perhaps that is the direction we need to take … get more serious about recycling … make it easier for everyone. Have a great weekend!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I totally agree about the need to take recycling more seriously. It’s utterly staggering how much recyclable stuff ends up in “trash.” Eek. Have a good weekend yourself!!!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree with the commenter above–I wish someone could find a way to make a reusable straw to more adequately replace plastic! I’ve definitely seen the need for straws by disabled people firsthand. I’ve seen many peers at Friedreich’s Ataxia conferences who can barely pick up a glass from the table and get the straw to their mouth; they wouldn’t have the balance and coordination to tip the glass up and drink from it.

    Liked by 2 people

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