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The Last Straw

I need plastic straws. Banning them puts a serious burden on people with disabilities

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I live in the Mission District of San Francisco, where delicious taquerias, bakeries, cafes, and bars are everywhere. And as a disabled person who uses a wheelchair to get around and a ventilator to breathe, the pleasure of eating and drinking is mediated by a number of factors. When I leave my home for a latte or burrito, a number of calculations go through my head: Will the place have their door propped open so I can enter? If the door is closed, will someone exiting or entering open it for me? Is the counter low enough for the server to see me? Can they hear and understand me with the mask over my nose if it’s incredibly noisy inside? Will I be able to sign my name on the touchscreen or receipt, depending on the counter height?

At one of my favorite neighborhood places, when I make my order, I feel comfortable asking for and receiving assistance. I’ll ask the barista to bring my drink to my table since I cannot reach the high counters or carry a full cup. I’ll even ask for help adding sugar when I’m feeling indulgent, because a glass dispenser is too heavy for me to lift. Two items I always ask with my drinks are a lid and a plastic straw, emphasis on plastic. Lids prevent spillage when I’m navigating bumpy sidewalks and curb cuts; straws are necessary because I do not have the hand and arm strength to lift a drink and tip it into my mouth. Plastic straws are the best when I drink hot liquids; compostable ones tend to melt or break apart.

It’s not easy or pleasant asking for help in public spaces like restaurants, because you never know what attitudes you’ll encounter: indifference, pity, or outright rejection. I don’t see these types of help as special treatment or inspirational for someone to surreptitiously post on social media as feel-good clickbait; they’re simply examples of excellent hospitality.

Plastic is seen as cheap, “anti-luxury,” wasteful, and harmful to the environment. All true. Plastic is also an essential part of my health and wellness. With my neuromuscular disability, plastic straws are necessary tools for my hydration and nutrition. Currently, plastic single-use straws are the latest target by environmentalists in the move toward zero waste. Major restaurant groups such as Union Square Hospitality Group and companies such as Starbucks and others in the travel industry announced plans to phase out single-use plastics.

Starbucks’s announcement — and the news that Vancouver and Seattle recently banned plastic straws, with other cities, like New York and San Francisco, contemplating proposals — struck a raw nerve with me for several reasons (and I won’t even get into the problems of recyclable plastics and greenwashing):

1. Plastic straws are considered unnecessary items used by environmentalists as a “gateway plastic” to engage the public on a larger conversation about waste. According to Dune Ives, executive director of the Lonely Whale Foundation, “Plastic straws are social tools and props, the perfect conversation starter.” But one person’s social prop is another person’s conduit for nutrition. It’s as if people who rely on straws — older adults, children, and disabled people — don’t matter and that our needs are less important than the environment. I feel erased by these attitudes.

2. Plastic straws are ubiquitous, whether we like it or not. Once you have something that provides access, it is difficult and harmful to take it away from a marginalized community that depends on it. I live in a world that was never built for me, and every little bit of access is treasured and hard-won. Bans on plastic straws are regressive, not progressive.

The plastic straw ban is symptomatic of larger systemic issues when it comes to the continual struggle for disability rights and justice. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 28 next week, on July 26, and yet people with disabilities continue to face barriers at eating establishments. The ADA is considered by many small businesses (and the National Restaurant Association) as a source of frivolous lawsuits brought by greedy lawyers and clients. Ableist attitudes that cast disabled people as “fakers” or “complainers” obscure the very real and painful experiences of not being able to eat and drink freely.

As demand increases for alternatives to plastic, so do the voices from the disability community sharing their concerns about how these bans will create additional labor, hurdles, and difficulties. On social media, many disabled people have been sharing their stories and keeping it 100 percent real. I observed and experienced all sorts of microaggressions and outright dismissal of what disabled people are saying online.

People have told me online that I still have access to biodegradable straws at Starbucks, despite my reasons for using plastic ones. People have told me to bring my own reusable straws without thinking about the extra work that entails. Why would a disabled customer have to bring something in order to drink while non-disabled people have the convenience and ability to use what is provided for free? This is neither just, equitable, nor hospitable.

This is the experience of living in a world that was never built for you: having to explain and defend yourself while providing infinite amounts of labor at the demand of people who do not recognize their nondisabled privilege. There are days when I want to put this on repeat: “Believe disabled people. Period.” I refuse to apologize or feel shame about the way my body works and how I navigate in the world. Everyone consumes goods and creates waste. We all do what we can to reduce, reuse, and recycle. We should recognize that different needs require different solutions. I’m not a monster for using plastic straws or other plastic items that allow me to live, such as oxygen tubes.

Restaurants are theater; they are also highly politicized, contested spaces. There are times when I go out and the waiter asks my companion for my order instead of me. I’ve gone through creepy, dirty side entrances just to get into a restaurant. I’ve been called “the wheelchair” by front-of-house staff when they commiserate on which table to place me, since I apparently take up too much space. I also love the places where I feel welcomed and respected. As they provide thoughtful and authentic hospitality, I respond by being a loyal customer who appreciates the little touches that make a visit enjoyable.

The ban in Seattle comes with an exemption for people with disabilities, where restaurants can provide plastic straws upon request for medical reasons. This is optional for restaurants, so they may choose to not to make any available. What people don’t understand with bans like this is that having to ask for a plastic straw puts an unfair burden, and scrutiny, on people with disabilities. They should not have to prove a medical need or even disclose their disability status when having a fun night out with friends. This is not hospitality.

So where do we go from here? How can we cultivate accessible and hospitable environments while reducing waste? Until someone invents a compostable straw with the functionality of a plastic one, I have a modest proposal for establishments that have banned plastic straws and those that are considering it:

  • If you are an establishment with straws at a counter, provide both types, clearly labeled, for people to choose from. If a cafe or restaurant wants to provide straws by request, have the server offer plastic and biodegradable versions, just as they would give any customer a choice of still or sparkling water. Customers can choose what is best for them without alienating an entire group.
  • Re-examine the kinds of plastic you use in your establishment (e.g., plastic wrap, containers) and find additional ways to reduce your consumption.
  • Expand your ideas about hospitality and accessibility; they are one and the same.
  • Think about the intentional and unintentional barriers your establishment sets that may keep people from visiting your place. Listen and learn from your customers’ critiques, including disabled customers. Don’t wait for protests or boycotts before engaging with the disability community (I see you, Starbucks).

If cafes can offer four types of milk for espresso drinks and restaurants 50 types of wine and beer, small businesses and large corporations can manage offering two types of straws. The key is to have the same level of access for all items. You can accommodate all your customers while reducing waste at the same time. Customers respond to choice and flexibility.

Because in the end, isn’t it all about welcoming everyone into your space with authentic and inclusive hospitality?

Alice Wong is the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project. She is a passionate lover of coffee, pie, ice cream, and fried chicken. Sarah Robbins is a freelance Illustrator and Printmaker based in Baltimore, MD, inspired by folklore and traditional printmaking.
Editor: Erin DeJesus