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

Why the Reversal on Cuts to the Special Olympics is Not Enough

A few weeks ago, the Trump administration, under the leadership of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, proposed cutting funding for the Special Olympics. 

It created a huge uproar among Republicans and Democrats alike. Even allies of the president slammed the move.[1] Thankfully, activism worked, and Trump said that he will keep the Special Olympics funded.[2]

The temptation for some of us, since then, is to maybe do a victory lap because Special Olympics funding was kept. However, such cuts are not even close to enough reason for people to breathe a sigh of relief when it comes to this administration’s handling of issues with regard to people with disabilities. Here are a few reasons why I argue that:

  1. Various facets of special education funding have still been cut in the proposed Trump budget. Education Week, which is often considered to be an important source on the education system in America, argued that there was some misinformation regarding the proposed Trump budget, and mentioned the significant cuts of funding for special needs students—a $7 million cut (from $77 million to $70 million) for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a $13 million cut (from $134 million to $121 million) for Gallaudet University (a federally-chartered private university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing in Washington, DC), and a $5 million cut to the American Printing House for the Blind (from $30 million to $25 million), among others.[3] Education Week offered the consolation that these cuts are unlikely to pass with Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, but it’s still a terrifying thought for advocates of people with disabilities that such deep cuts are even up for consideration in the first place.
  2. The entire Affordable Care Act (ACA), including the provision on preexisting conditions, continues to be a target for repeal among some. Regardless of whether you like the ACA or not, the provision within the act not to allow the denial of health care coverage based on a preexisting condition was important for people who may’ve been denied because of a condition in the past. While I understand the arguments for and against the ACA, removing the provision on preexisting conditions would be nothing short of catastrophic for people who have a disability, and for other people who have any other kind of preexisting condition.
  3. There is a very serious chance that a Republican House, Republican Senate, and Republican president would weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While I will be the first to admit that the ADA hasn’t fixed everything (an issue I have previously written about on this blog), it has made a world of difference for so many people. And yet, members of the House passed a bill last year called the “ADA Education and Reform Act” on what was mostly a party-line vote. It was reform all right—reform that proposed making it harder for discrimination against people with disabilities to occur and easier for unscrupulous entities to get away with such discrimination.[4] Thankfully, the Senate didn’t pass it, but the support for this piece of legislation is a dangerous foreshadowing, if we’re not careful. 

So, should we be happy that there are no cuts to Special Olympics funding? Absolutely. But should we rest easy, given the other areas in which the lives of people with disabilities are going to potentially be harmed? Absolutely not.


[1] https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/436097-gop-senator-says-special-olympics-cuts-will-not-be-approved

[2] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/03/28/president-trump-restoring-funding-special-olympics/3302983002/

[3] https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/speced/2019/03/what_are_the_real_special_education_cuts.html

[4] To learn more about the ADA Education and Reform Act, the AARP has some information: https://www.aarp.org/politics-society/advocacy/info-2018/congress-weakens-ada-fd.html

Why the Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act Felt Bittersweet

A few weeks ago, many disability rights advocates celebrated the 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed this landmark legislation into law.

I wanted to be in a celebratory mood on the anniversary of the ADA. Yet, as I suddenly remembered how far people with disabilities still need to come before they have the same opportunities as able-bodied people like me, the anniversary felt a little bittersweet.

Now, don’t get me wrong—in spite of the statement I just said, I think that the ADA is arguably the most significant piece of civil rights legislation in the last fifty years (the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965). It is a piece of legislation that improves the lives of millions of Americans, and it is a piece of legislation which, in many cases, enables disabled people to have access to the same opportunities that their able-bodied counterparts have.

While the legislation has improved the lives of millions, it still has a way to go to give disabled people the same access as able-bodied people.

For example, while transit access has improved for people with disabilities, they don’t have access equal to their able-bodied counterparts. One need not look further than the fact that subway systems in New York, Chicago, and Boston, for example, do not have universal wheelchair access (though New York’s situation is much worse than that of Boston or Chicago).

Furthermore, while many buildings now have ADA access, the quality of that access (in the form of things like elevators and ramps) can widely vary. Sometimes the ADA access is top-notch, and sometimes the access leaves something to be desired (everyone can probably think of examples of unreliable elevators).

There is the potential for people with disabilities in many cases to have opportunities similar to able-bodied people like me. But in many areas, that potential hasn’t been fully realized, even though the ADA was passed over a quarter century ago. And there is a certain disappointment, a certain bittersweetness, that I feel as a result of this potential that hasn’t been fully realized.

But why should you all, as readers, care about my being bittersweet about the anniversary of the ADA, let alone one of the reasons I feel bittersweet? I think all of you should care because my bittersweetness is a reminder for all of us that the advancement of disabled persons’ rights did not end with the ADA. Instead, the uneven progress in accessibility for people with disabilities is a reminder that there is still much to advocate for.