As It Happens

Why banning plastic straws can be harmful for people with disabilities

​As plastic straw bans become the latest trend for companies and governments looking to reduce their waste, people with disabilities are speaking out.

'You need to involve the disability community from the get-go, rather than afterwards,' says advocate

Governments and corporations worldwide are banning single-use plastic straws. (Darren Staples/Reuters)

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​As plastic straw bans become the latest trend for companies and governments looking to reduce waste, people with disabilities are speaking out.

Hotel chain Marriott International said Wednesday it would ditch single-use plastic straws, following similar announcements last week by Starbucks and American Airlines. Vancouver passed a law banning plastic straws this year, as did Seattle. California is currently mulling over a state-wide ban.

But people with disabilities say plastic straws are still the best option for folks with limited mobility. Reusable straws aren't always an option given the need to carry and clean them, while plastic alternatives can be a choking hazard for some.

Lawrence Carter-Long, communications director for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, spoke to As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch about why plastic straw bans fail to take people with disabilities into account. 

Here is part of that conversation.

What have these corporations missed when it comes to people with disabilities and plastic straws?

Paper turns to mush. Glass breaks. Metal can get dangerously hot and damage teeth. Bamboo isn't flexible, and neither is silicone. And both silicone and wheat can be dangerous for people who have allergies.

So when it comes to disability and access needs, one size doesn't fit all.

Simply saying something like, "Use a reusable straw" isn't going to work for everyone.

Metal straws get too hot to be an adequate replacement for plastic, say people with disabilities and disability rights advocates. (Roger Corriveau/CBC)

Why is the plastic straw the right one for people with disabilities?

Plastic straws in many, many ways — and you can use multiple definitions of the word — are the most flexible. 

They are really, I think, across the board, the most useful for the most people.

Is there a policy from a city council or a large corporation that you feel does take your considerations into account?

I think places like Montreal and others in Canada have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes that have been made in the United States.

The solutions are actually fairly simple. If you don't need a straw, don't use a straw. If you can use a reusable straw, use that. If you need a plastic straw for whatever reason, that should be made available to people.

You shouldn't get the evil eye. You shouldn't get the third degree.

Restaurant owners should have a stock of them in the store room or under the counter for people who ask.

The solutions really are that simple.

Starbucks seems to be doing what you're saying. They're backing off an all-out ban, saying Friday they'll continue to offer straws to those who need or request them. Are they doing what you want? 

I think that's a step in the right direction. The problem is that nobody has seen the specifics yet. The devil is in the detail, as the old saying goes.

The ways that these things are implemented are as important as what is implemented, and in order to find solutions that work, you need to involve the disability community from the get-go, rather than afterwards when people start complaining or protesting or causing a ruckus.

Some disability might be obvious — that someone is, let's say, a quadriplegic. But others may not.

This is also an issue for folks who are survivors of strokes, for people who have Parkinson's disease who may have difficulty controlling their bite, for people with cerebral palsy who might produce excess saliva.

So there's a multitude of conditions that these bans affect, and since one size doesn't fit all, we've got to take them all into account in order to be fair.

Lawrence Carter-Long is the communications director for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. (Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund)

I'm wondering how you respond to those who say these banning these straws are vital to the health of our oceans?

You can look at studies that say ... about 0.03 per cent of ... the garbage that's accumulated in the oceans are straws, plastic straws.

We're going to get much further much faster by doing things like tagging, tracking abandoned fishing equipment or changing the ways in which we do waste disposal.

That's not to say that we shouldn't put our time effort and energy into the plastics that go into the ocean, including straws, but that we need to have a process in order to take into account those people who need them as those policies are being developed, rather than after the fact.

I'm convinced that the way science is going, one day we'll get there. One day we'll have alternatives to plastic that the majority of people can use.

But until and unless we get to that point, we shouldn't be leaving people out.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Ashley Mak.