Anti-straw movement should consider people with disabilities, advocates say
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, April 23, 2018 7:30PM EDT
TORONTO -- Some Canadians who rely on plastic straws are calling on the surging anti-straw movement to consider the impact it could have on people with disabilities.
The outcry comes as global momentum to ban plastic straws builds with British Prime Minister Theresa May vowing to eliminate plastic straws and develop more sustainable alternatives.
Closer to home, an increasing number of Canadian businesses are limiting straw use, with dozens of bars and restaurants in Toronto taking part in a one-day campaign to limit use this past weekend.
Miriam Osborne blasts the campaign as ableist for failing to take into account anyone who depends on straws because of physical limitations.
The 35-year-old Toronto resident has a disability called arthrogryposis, which affects the muscles in her limbs and prevents her from being able to hold a cup.
"I understand that my use of straws is not enough to keep things status quo, but straws are just a tiny fraction of the plastic," Osborne says, of the broader push to reduce plastic waste.
"To me, it's just lame liberal activism that in the end is nothing. We're really kind of viliyfing people who need straws or forgetting about them completely -- let's be honest -- in encouraging shaming people who are asking for them."
The ways in which eco-conscious business owners have responded vary from location to location. While some say they only dispense straws on request, others have switched to biodegradable or renewable products.
Osborne says she'd like to see more discussion about alternatives, saying she was infuriated by three establishments she visited in the past six months that had no straws on hand.
She says they included two bars and one restaurant, and that the staff in each case was unapologetic. Each time, she was forced to leave.
"That attitude of course is what really enraged me, almost more than them not having straws," she says.
More than two years after a video of a sea turtle impaled by a straw turned up on YouTube, establishments run the risk of appearing out-of-step if they don't take a stand against straws.
Advocates say they hope ditching the straw can be a catalyst for other changes that would also reduce plastic shopping bags, water bottles and food containers.
The federal government is trying to develop a national strategy to cut back on how much plastic Canadians use and toss, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stopped short of joining May's stance.
Vancouver's Gabrielle Peters says she wonders how the plastic straw came to be regarded with such disdain.
For many years, she relied on bendy straws because of a rare neuromuscular disease that affected her swallowing muscles, vocal muscles and tongue. Since starting to use a wheelchair more than 13 years ago, Peters says she's realized how little consideration is given to those with disabilities.
"Everything in our society -- from the physical environment, to the policies, to the timing of lights, to everything -- is organized based on the needs and wants of non-disabled people. So my curiosity and concern around the straw ban is the thinking that got (us) here," says Peters.
"My guess is that it's because everyone in the room thinking about it said, 'Well, that's something that's completely unnecessary. That's something that's totally frivolous and no one needs plastic straws so that would be a good place to start.' That's where the problem occurs ... the approach was based on an assumption that's ableist."
James Hicks of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities says he's used to seeing discussion of proposed policy treat people with disabilities as an afterthought.
He suggests there are many single-use plastics that some able-bodied people would refuse to give up, such as bags in baby bottles, because it's an inconvenience.
"There are some things they are not going to be able to get rid of because people don't want to be without those," says Hicks.
"One need should not trump another. The need for good environmental products should not trump what's needed for people with disabilities, and vice versa."
Some might suggest people bring their own straw but Hicks says that's not always possible if the person is dining alone and needs help taking their straw out. They may even have trouble storing it and accessing it when needed.
And reusable straws made of metal or wood can be dangerous, or more difficult to manipulate with a chin, he adds. Cleaning it is another problem.
Hicks said any law about straw use would have to include assurances that straws remain accessible and affordable.
Peters worried about having to supply her own straw if they suddenly became scarce.
"Where do I get that straw? Are straws then going to be something you buy at a medical supply store? And as soon as you do that they become more expensive and they become less accessible," says Peters, on a fixed income of disability benefits she estimates at $1,100 per month.
"You're just adding that cost to me."