Imagine this. There is a tool you rely on for drinking and using it is essential. It is readily available. You get one with a drink everywhere you go, and you can buy it cheaply in many stores. Imagine that tool being taken away from you.
It’s forbidden, becomes hard to find – hidden and potentially expensive. Your ability to rely on this tool for your security has become difficult.
This is the situation faced by people with disabilities who rely on plastic straws for drinking, under the federal government’s recently released regulations on single-use plastics.
You may have already heard of it. In 2018, provincial and territorial governments adopted the Pan-Canadian Zero Plastic Waste Strategy.
Now, four years later, with attention shifting away from the pandemic, regulations on single-use plastics are leaving people with disabilities who rely on plastic straws abandoned by unnecessary eco-capacity. There is a compromise to be found.
A case for the environment
The environmental case for single-use plastics is well known and has scientific and public support. Our sidewalks show traces of discarded single-use plastics and our landfills are full of plastics that will never decompose. Our behaviors must change, it is irrefutable.
While deciding how much change to make, the federal government focused on banning the “big six” – the plastic items that most regularly pollute our environment, such as grocery bags, cutlery and straws.
In a small step towards recognizing the needs of people with disabilities, there are exceptions. Soft plastic straws will be available for sale in packs of 20 or more, but only if hidden and requested by the customer. But they won’t be available in restaurants or any other place that sells drinks.
For some people with disabilities, the soft plastic straw is vital. Drinking from a cup requires a complex set of muscles to work together seamlessly, from lifting and tilting the cup towards your mouth to controlling the muscles needed for swallowing.
For people with a number of neuromuscular diseases, this complex movement is simply not possible and can lead to complications such as aspiration, when fluid enters the lungs and causes pneumonia, or dehydration, when the body lacks the fluid it needs to function.
For people with disabilities, these complications can lead to death.
You may be wondering why a soft plastic straw is needed. What about paper or silicone? People with disabilities are resilient and resourceful people. They’ve tried all the different types and know that the soft plastic straw is the one for them – sturdy yet flexible, hygienic, disposable, readily available and inexpensive.
If a person with a disability tells you that something works for them, believe them.
There are two opposing models of disability at work. Single-use plastic regulations are an example of the medical model of disability in action – a model deeply rooted in our societal beliefs, viewing disability as the individual’s problem, so the extra steps someone needs to take to access to plastic straws are their problem, their responsibility.
As disabled writer Alice Wong says:
“I live in a world that was never built for me, and every little bit of access is precious and hard-earned. Banning plastic straws is regressive, not progressive.
In contrast, the social model of disability sees disability as a societal problem. He believes that we must remove barriers to enable the full integration of people with disabilities into society.
In 2019, the Accessible Canada Act came into force and is based on these barrier removal principles. He talks about the involvement of people with disabilities in the design of laws and policies, and the need for barrier-free access to full and equal participation in society – this is missing in single-use plastics regulations.
We have set up an unnecessary divide – environmentalism versus disabled needs – creating eco-capacity. Compromise is the way to go and already exists in our approach to single-use plastics.
For example, plastic caps for on-the-go drinks like coffee and soft drinks are not banned, as there is no reliable alternative. The environmental cost of keeping these plastics has been balanced with the need to transport beverages safely. There are also compromises for flexible plastic straws.
The City of Vancouver has had a bylaw in place since 2020 that was developed in consultation with people with disabilities who use straws for drinking. It allows flexible plastic straws in restaurants, including the design of a logo to indicate to people with disabilities that these straws are available.
And similar examples can be found all over North America. However, Canada may be the first jurisdiction to introduce such strict rules on the sale of plastic straws.
Placing plastic straws, a vital accessibility tool, under the same sales restrictions as tobacco products is too harsh and detrimental to the dignity and inclusion of people with disabilities. A compromise is needed between the inclusion of all Canadians and our environmental responsibilities.