Why Disabled Communities Are Literally Facing the Last Straw

Images Courtesy of The Georgia Straight and The Daily Beast

In recent years, awareness of plastic waste in our oceans has skyrocketed. This has led to several campaigns focusing on the impact of single-use plastics—particularly plastic straws. Banning them not only is a major step towards reducing marine waste, but also acts as a gateway towards more open conversations on sustainability and environmental engagement.

Fueled by factors such as the 2015 viral video of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose and efforts of environmental campaigns like Strawless Ocean, Straw Wars, and The Last Plastic Straw, this movement has never been stronger. Recently, major corporations including the Walt Disney Company and Starbucks have pledged to transition to other alternatives, leaving behind the era of plastic straws. Because of this booming movement, cities such as San Francisco and Seattle have decided to institute fully-fledged bans of their own.

But is the plastic straw ban movement all that it claims to be?

The answer is no—at least not when it comes to disabled communities. Environmentalists often frame plastic straws as a simple luxury whose absence wouldn’t affect anyone significantly. However, for a variety of people with physical disabilities like cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis, plastic straws serve as the only means of consuming foods, beverages, and medications. Many can’t physically lift cups to their mouths while others struggle to drink safely without the risk of aspirating or burning themselves on liquid.

As a result, many movements developed “safer” options: biodegradable, disposable, or reusable ones. However, none are 100% safe for everyone. Some, like paper and pasta straws, dissolve at high temperatures and subsequently pose as a choking hazard. Others, namely metal and glass, can be harder to clean, especially for people with severe physical conditions.

Even when the alternatives do prove useable, the pressure to find these sustainable solutions falls on disabled consumers rather than governmental institutions or corporations. It reduces the disabled community to one that guarantees a substandard lifestyle compared to their nondisabled counterparts. And it presents before them yet another consequence of an illness that they did not ask for.

What does that lead us to?

Obviously, the plastic straw ban movement has good intentions. Preventing the deterioration of our marine ecosystems has never been a more urgent issue.

On the other hand, both the movement and the policies it has engendered are clear examples of how disabled individuals are often forgotten when crucial decisions are being made. Disabled voices are regularly left out of the conversations that matter most to them. The plastic straw situation is only a fraction of the systematic issues faced by disabled individuals all over the world.   

Having more environmentally sustainable oceans and building accessible communities shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Whether or not we will achieve either of these futures is something only time can tell.


-Rut Noboa