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.
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.
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. Companies, cities, and even entire countries have 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 plastic straws on Twitter and other social media. 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.
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:
- Someone shouldn’t have to ask for the same basic accommodation that is provided for everyone else.
- People may refuse to give out the straws because they perceive the person is “not disabled enough” to use one. I would likely be denied a straw because I have an invisible disability.
- People with communication barriers (a segment of many chronic illnesses) may not be able to request plastic straws
- Also, people with vision impairments might not know where to look for them.
A lot of people with disabilities tend to be made fun of or talked down to as it is for needing accommodations. Putting said accommodations behind a lock and key is not a good idea.
Who else would be impacted by a plastic straw ban?
Young people with disabilities have been speaking out about the plastic straw ban. This ban doesn’t just affect people in a certain age group though. Senior citizens who have trouble gripping straws and using a cup independently also rely on plastic straws to drink. They 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. They 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, it is very frustrating to do so. Often times I will end up spilling water all over myself, and have wet clothes from these spills. At home, I have spilled water many times on the table, floor, and probably even the dog. I have trouble lifting cups and tipping them so I can drink. With straws, the risk of me spilling things goes down dramatically.
When are paper straws not usable?
Paper straws are very frustrating to use for many people with disabilities. Each person has their own reasons for not being able to use them. Here are some examples:
- For many, the texture of paper straws is highly uncomfortable. They are unable to grip the surface of the straw easily with their mouths
- Paper straws also lose their shape and can dissolve in liquid quickly. People who have trouble drinking at a normal rate would risk not being able to continue to use a straw.
- Options for other reusable straws tend to be difficult to clean. Using a dirty straw can put people at risk for different illnesses.
Where can I voice my opinion on this issue?
The best way to voice your opinion on this issue right now is by contacting decisionmakers.
- Companies that are proposing a straw ban. Take the time to remind them that people with disabilities benefit from using plastic straws.
- When it comes to cities and countries, contact local government offices, elected officials, and disability councils. Doing a quick web search 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.
Why is offering a mix of paper and plastic straws a good solution?
Instead of banning plastic straws completely, customers should have the options for choosing paper or plastic straws. By increasing the availability of paper straws, people can 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 a safe option. This way, they can 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. Until then, completely taking away current options is 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.