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‘Disabled People Are Not Part of the Conversation.’ Advocates Speak Out Against Plastic Straw Bans

3 minute read

Some disabled rights advocates are speaking out against an emerging trend of restaurants and other companies phasing out the use of plastic straws with drink orders, arguing that the alternatives can be inadequate for customers with various disabilities.

Plastic straws have been disappearing from coffee shops, airlines, hotels and more amid concerns that they frequently wind up as ocean waste, presenting an environmental hazard. The campaign against them accelerated this week amid news that major companies like Starbucks, American Airlines and Hyatt are drastically reducing their use, in some cases opting for straw-less plastic tops on some drinks instead.

But disability advocates say they feel the campaign against plastic straws is being waged without adequate input from disabled customers.

“The disability community is concerned with the ban because it was implemented without the input of their daily life experience,” says Katherine Carroll, policy analyst at the Rochester, New York-based Center for Disability Rights. “Plastic straws are an accessible way for people with certain disabilities to consume food and drinks, and it seems the blanket bans are not taking into account that they need straws and also that plastic straw replacements are not accessible to people.”

Popular alternatives for plastic straws include options made from biodegradable paper and metal, the latter of which are typically reusable once cleaned. But Jamie Szymkowiak, founder of the Scotland-based “One in Five” disabled rights campaign, says those options may not suit people with certain disabilities.

For instance, Szymkowiak — who says he has arthrogryposis, a condition that affects the movement of his joints — says some disabled people can take a longer time to drink, leading paper straws to get soggy or even disintegrate, potentially increasing the risk of choking. He added that metal straws are usually inflexible, making them more difficult to use for people who have a mobility-related impairment.

Szymkowiak says the disabled community understands and respects the environmental concerns that plastic straws present, but he feels that major companies should work to accommodate and value disabled customers. He and Carroll both want companies to keep plastic straws available behind the counter, and to use their clout to push manufacturers to create environmentally-friendly flexible straws.

Starbucks told TIME that the company “intends to focus on inclusive design to ensure that all customers will be able to enjoy their Starbucks beverages.” An American Airlines representative said the carrier plans to keep a small number of plastic straws and sticks on hand for passengers who may need them. Hyatt did not immediately return TIME’s request for comment, but in a press release said that “straws and picks will be available on request only.”

“It’s just commonplace that disabled people are not part of the conversation when it comes to implementing laws and legislation,” says Szymkowiak. “Having our voices not heard is all too familiar. We recognize the environmental concern and we see the impact single-use plastic has on the environment. It’s good that they are reacting to customer concerns, but a company as big as Starbucks should pay attention to disabled customers’ needs and produce assessable straws.”

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Write to Gina Martinez at gina.martinez@time.com