Over the past few months, several people have been talking about banning plastic straws in different establishments, and many of them do not realize how plastic straws help visually impaired people, as well as those with other chronic illnesses and disabilities. The idea of losing access to an important piece of assistive technology is certainly terrifying, and for some people it can be as intense as losing the ability to drink. After receiving several requests, today I will be answering the who, what, when, where, and why about how a plastic straw ban would affect me as someone who is visually impaired and that also has Chiari Malformation.
Who is visually impaired?
According to the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, about 285 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with low vision or blindness- 39 million people are blind and 246 million have low vision. In the United States, over 7 million people have some form of vision impairment according to data collected by the National Federation of the Blind. While this may not seem like a very large number, there are many more people with vision impairment that may be undiagnosed or that may not be reported to state agencies for one reason or another. Read more statistics in my post for World Sight Day 2017 here.
What is Chiari Malformation and why does it cause issues?
Chiari Malformation is a brain condition where brain tissue extends into the spinal column and can cause several neurological issues- I describe it as being too much brain to contain. While symptoms vary from person to person, the main symptoms I experience are chronic pain, chronic migraines, low vision, balance issues, and poor coordination, among others. With the combination of vision impairment and Chiari Malformation, many simple tasks like balancing on one foot, manipulating a lock, and even drinking out of a cup are very difficult. Read more about how I explain Chiari Malformation here.
When did plastic straws become an issue?
While people have been talking about how plastic straws can be problematic for years now, the issue recently came back into focus in the last two weeks as companies, cities, and even entire countries started talking about banning plastic straws out of concern for the environment. Many of these places are located near the coastlines where plastic waste is a common sight, and there have been considerable efforts made by environmental organizations and even celebrities to encourage people to not use plastic straws. Personally, I am very happy that people are working on reducing plastic waste, but I do not like the idea of completely banning something that a significant part of the population relies on.
Where are people talking about this issue?
I have seen people from all sorts of disability backgrounds talking about the plastic straw issue on Twitter and other social media platforms, especially in the last two weeks. Each user has been sharing their own experiences on how having access to plastic straws benefit them and their individual disabilities and illnesses. I highly recommend exploring this topic more on Twitter if you are interested in being an ally to the disability community- read nine other ways to be an ally here.
Why is requesting a straw frustrating?
Many people have suggested that people with disabilities should just request a plastic straw if they need one. This is not a great solution for several reasons, one of them being that someone shouldn’t have to ask for the same basic accommodation that is provided for everyone else. Another is that people may refuse to give out the straws because they perceive the person is “not disabled enough” to use one- I would likely be one of those people to be denied a straw because I am able to pass off as being able-bodied due to my invisible disability. Lastly, people with communication barriers (which can be a segment of many chronic illnesses) may not be able to request plastic straws and be left not being able to use one. A lot of people with disabilities tend to be made fun of or talked down to as it is for needing accommodations, so putting said accommodations behind a lock and key is not a good idea. Also, people with vision impairments might not know where to look for them.
Who else would be impacted by a plastic straw ban?
Young people with disabilities have been speaking out about the plastic straw ban, but this ban doesn’t just affect people in a certain age group. Senior citizens who have trouble gripping straws and using a cup independently also rely on plastic straws in order to be able to drink, and would have issues with the texture of paper straws and how they dissolve somewhat quickly. With the aging population increasing in America, more and more people may find themselves needing a plastic straw, and would not be able to drink out of a cup without one.
What happens when you don’t use a straw?
While I am able to drink out of a cup without a straw on occasion, it is very frustrating to do so. Often times I will end up spilling water all over myself, and it is a completely normal occurrence for me to have wet clothes from these spills. My family can also confirm that I have spilled water many times on the table, floor, and probably even the dog because I have trouble lifting cups and tipping them so I can drink. With straws, the risk of me spilling things goes down dramatically. Read more about how I navigate the dining hall with vision impairment here.
When are paper straws not usable?
Paper straws are very frustrating to use for many people with disabilities, and each person has their own reasons for not being able to use them. For many, the texture is highly uncomfortable, and they are unable to grip the surface of the straw easily. As mentioned before, the straws also lose their shape and can dissolve in liquid quickly, so people who have trouble drinking at a normal rate would risk not being able to continue to use a straw. Options for reusable straws have also been proposed, but those tend to be difficult to clean and using a dirty straw can put people at risk for different illnesses as a result.
Where can I voice my opinion on this issue?
The best way to voice your opinion on this issue right now is by contacting companies that are proposing a straw ban and reminding them that people with disabilities benefit from using plastic straws. When it comes to cities and countries, contacting local government offices, elected officials, and disability councils can ensure your message is heard by the correct officials. Currently, there are no bills being proposed in United States Government for a federal straw ban, though people looking to communicate their stance on an issue may benefit from the tips in my post about contacting elected officials on healthcare or any other topic here.
Why is offering a mix of paper and plastic straws a good solution?
Instead of banning plastic straws completely, customers should have the option of being able to choose between a paper and a plastic straw. By increasing the availability of paper straws, people will be more likely to choose an option that is better for the environment. In the meantime, keeping the accessibility of plastic straws will allow people with disabilities to choose an option that is better for their wellbeing and continue to have access to something that is essential for meeting their basic needs. As technology continues to evolve, more environmentally friendly plastic options can be explored, but completely taking away current options could be very dangerous for many members of the disability community.
I hope that my post has answered any questions that people may have about why banning all plastic straws is a bad idea for people with disabilities. While my proposed solution is far from perfect, it would ensure that people with disabilities can continue to live a life with independence and dignity- and a life where they can enjoy a drink with friends.