Drinking Straws, Disability and Able-Bodied ‘Splainers

Drinking Straws, Disability and Able-Bodied ‘Splainers July 16, 2018



There are about a thousand big news stories that we need to talk about today and I’m working my way through them as fast as I can, but let me take a minute to talk about straws. Everyone I know on Facebook is angry about straws.

It seems that Starbucks has decided to get rid of straws in order to save the environment, or at least look like they’re trying. Instead of straws, their beverages will now have weird sippy lids that actually take up MORE plastic than the straws did, though they’re recyclable.

People have opinions of all kinds on this. I don’t have time to mention all of them. The most significant thing I’ve noticed is that disabled people have argued that some of them actually need straws– regular disposable single-use plastic straws– and other people have condescendingly tried to explain to them that they don’t.

They’ll come out of the gate saying that no one needs a straw, and a disabled person will explain that they actually do. Not everyone can lift a cup weighed down with a beverage to their lips; not everyone can can tip a mug toward their own mouth with the precision it takes to not pour scalding hot coffee down their fronts. Depending on what your physical limitations are, it might be impossible to grasp a mug handle in the first place. And it’s not like you can stop drinking if you find it difficult; you need fluid to live, so you find a way to adapt. That way is sucking it through a straw.

The able-bodied ‘splainers shut them down. “Washable stainless steel straws, just like every other utensil,” said the able-bodied ‘splainers. All right, that’s great if you’ve got relatively good coordination and all your disability does is make it hard to lift or tip a cup.  But what if you’re less coordinated? What if you have tremors? What if you can’t quite see to judge the distance between a utensil and your mouth, but you have to dip it around by trial and error a few times before you finally get it where it’s supposed to be? Think about every time that you’ve accidentally bitten down on a fork or bumped your lip with a coffee mug. Now pretend that that happens every  time you try to eat or drink anything, no matter how hard you try.  Would you rather do that with a flexible one-use plastic straw, or a metal utensil? Imagine you have Parkinson’s. Imagine your hands and head shake and there’s nothing you can do to steady them. Now imagine you’re trying to suck on a metal straw. It’s like taking a miniature jackhammer to your teeth– a jackhammer that’s been immersed in a boiling hot or freezing cold beverage. Metal conducts heat. That hurts.

Able-bodied ‘splainers then argued that they can just carry a reusable silicone straw with them and use it at restaurants. And silicone straws are great, for some people. But they’re still harder than thin plastic, and you have to wash them. Some people can wash their own dishes. But depending on your disability, this could be an enormous hassle. There’s simply a limited amount of time in every day, and when your disability makes everything take much longer, you have to choose how to spend your time. For some people, having disposable dishes, straws and spoons might be the difference between being able to live independently or needing a caregiver to do housework for you. Yes, that has an impact on the environment. So does a single person who isn’t disabled driving her car to the  grocery store and back while her disabled neighbor takes a wheelchair-access bus with fifty other passengers.

So what’s my point in all of this? Should we give up trying to reduce plastic waste? No, I don’t think we should at all. My point is that if a disabled person tells you that they have a need, you should listen to them. You should not talk over them and assume they haven’t thought of an obvious, simple alternative. You should take in what they have to say and include it in your considerations, just as you should for any other sort of human being. Disabled people live with their condition every day. They have surely considered every possible option for making their lives easier, a lot more often than you have. If they say something is impossible, they’re not failing to be open-minded and optimistic. They’re speaking from experience.

People with disabilities are not wasteful or lazy, and they’re not the cause of our environmental woes. If every disposable straw on earth disappeared tomorrow, we would still be living in a wasteful and destructive culture and the environment would still be a mess. Whatever solution we propose, it has to be a solution that works. And things that don’t work for people with disabilities, are not going to work.

How can we know what will work for people with disabilities?

Ask them.

And then listen.




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