What a Ban on Plastic Straws Means for People with Disabilities

The City of Vancouver’s “Single-Use Item Reduction Strategy” is set to come into effect in June 2019. A ban on plastic straws is part of this strategy, and is being hailed by many as a step forward in reducing our waste from single-use plastic items such as packaging, straws, and bags. The ban has already captured much public attention and many restaurants and businesses have already started phasing out plastic straws all over the province, and are opting for alternatives such as straws made from metal, paper, and bamboo.

While this may represent a step in the right direction in reducing litter and waste from single use products, many people with disabilities require plastic straws to help them eat, drink and take medication safely. Some people with cerebral palsy or stroke impairments, for example, rely heavily on straws – particularly bendable plastic straws – to allow them to drink liquids.

Straws are Important for People with Disabilities

Although many people take it for granted, getting a glass from your hand to your mouth, and then tipping the liquid in and swallowing requires a complex set of movements. A bendable plastic straw enables people with certain disabilities to accomplish this task. Unfortunately, straws made from alternative materials often present a choking hazard, are not positionable, cannot be used for hot liquids, or are costly for the consumer. For example, glass and metal straws can injure people who bite them, and those that have trouble drinking from a glass will likely have difficulty washing and carrying a reusable straw.

For people with certain disabilities, plastic straws are not frivolous. They represent an accessibility issue similar to ramps for people using mobility devices. Advocates suggest a social solution to the issue of disposable plastic straws, rather than a legal one. They embrace approaches such as moving from opt-out to ask-in policies:  while plastic straws would not be provided with everyone’s drink, when people do ask for one, one should be provided, no questions asked. This would reduce the overall number of plastic straws being used and thrown out, but people who do use them would not be vilified or discriminated against.

Recommendations to the Ban

The Cerebral Palsy Association of BC met with the City of Vancouver last month to voice the concerns of some of their members. The Association made the following requests:

  • Provisions for straws to be offered or made available on request for those who require them, with restaurant education and monitoring for compliance;
  • A public education strategy to mitigate confusion and stigmatization and increase understanding, so that individuals who benefit from plastic straws do not have to explain themselves; and
  • To include the Cerebral Palsy Association proactively in the policy consultation and to conduct increased outreach to the disability community.

While the environmental efforts of the City are commendable, the Cerebral Palsy Association believes that an outright ban of plastic straws is not the answer. While there is no doubt that the number of plastic straws used in Canada can be reduced – some estimate that 57 million plastic straws are used throughout the country daily – plastic straws should still be made available for people who need them.

The Cerebral Palsy Association invites you to read and share their article and provide your comments. If you would like to share your questions or concerns about the ban directly with the Reduce Single-Use Team, they can be reached by email at [email protected]

*Photo via Amazon.com

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Andrea Donaldson


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