The Straw Ban, Human Rights, and Setting Your Privilege Aside
So I've been wanting to write this post for weeks and weeks now, but have been too emotionally drained to do so (and too busy trying to address idiocracy across Facebook and Twitter. One day I will honestly embrace the fact that it is not my job to educate each and every person who doesn't actually want to learn, but just to argue). We're going to talk about the motherfucking straw ban. Brace yourselves. This is gonna get heated, but it's also super important.
Unless you've been living under a rock or haven't been on social media in the past few months, you have heard about the proposed straw ban in the U.S. (and Canada and the U.K., I think?). In case you haven't, here's a recap: Someone posted a picture of a sea turtle with a plastic straw in its nose on the internet, and people got upset. As they should, poor turtle. So folks decided that the thing to do was to flat-out ban single-use plastic straws from public places. Some cities are banning them from restaurants, coffee shops, etc, but they will still be available for purchase by individuals at grocery stores and what not. Other cities are banning them across the board. The state of California (or some cities therein, if I remember correctly) are even imposing fines and jail time for violating the straw ban. So, disabled people spoke up and said "Hey, a lot of us actually need those single-use plastic straws to be available for us in public spaces. Can we have some flexibility here, some consideration? Our lives matter, too."
And we were met with outrage, hatred, abuse, down-talking, gaslighting, and general dismissal by all-knowing abled people who seem to think we have never heard of silicon or paper or metal or pasta or biodegradable or bamboo or etc etc etc straws. We have tried to explain that, sure, most people can do without a straw entirely, or use one of those options. But they don't work for everyone. Some people do, 100% need positionable one-time-use plastic straws to be available for them. And the response continued to be truly, utterly awful. From assuming we were all idiots that had never googled our options, to just blatantly telling us that our lives and ability to function in society aren't as important as The Environment, and a lot of variants in between. And y'all... fuck that.
First of all, even educated and well-intentioned abled people do not understand the needs of disabled people. Nope, not even if you have disabled family members, or work with disabled folks, or have a super loud disabled friend (like me!). This is often referred to as "Ally Street Cred" and it's nothing. Sorry. You absolutely cannot speak for what the disabled community needs, thinks, or feels. If a disabled person says "I need this" or "this is harmful to me" you do not get to argue or able-splain that. Just, just believe people. Believe us. We have dealt with our specific needs for years to decades to our entire lives... we know what's out there, we know what works for us, and we know what we need. We also are aware of SO MANY little things that abled folks never even think of. Why should they? Most people don't have to worry about severe allergens in paper. Most people don't have to worry about chipping their teeth on metal straws because of tremors. Most folks don't have to worry that their straw may fall apart and choke them. They don't have to worry too much if their reusable straw is 100% clean because that small contaminant isn't going to derail their entire health and land them in the hospital. They also don't have to worry that, if a straw isn't available and they don't have one on hand, they might die because that's their only way of consuming liquid. These things are all super real and valid, and people with these needs are absolutely as valuable to society and deserving of equal rights as anyone else. If you want to argue that some people are less deserving of equality, protection, and a free and safe society than others, you've come to the wrong place. Fuck off with that bullshit.
There are 10,000 arguments going around about the straw ban. Things like how much value we place on the environment vs disabled lives. About how much of an impact a straw ban can make on the environment (the answer is not much/hardly any at all, as straws are only 0.03% of plastic waste). About what alternatives there are and who can use them and whose responsibility it is to provide them, and so on and so on. But for me the biggest issue is, honestly, that when the disabled community spoke up and said "hey, um this is actually something that really affects us," that was soooooo quickly and aggressively talked over. From patroniziation to able-splaining (as mentioned above), the abled community and yes, even some of the disabled community (because lateral abelism is totally a thing... I'll write about this soon) rallied together to shut down a minority group that was just asking for consideration. And this is so far from the first time this has happened. Politicians (mostly GOP, though Dems are far from blameless) keep trying to write laws to reduce/eliminate protection for PWD, accessibility requirements are ignored and/or treated like a huge inconvenience or a gracious gift to us poor disableds (never actually call people "disableds" or "the disabled" or "an ADA" btw), ableism is rife within the media, disability slurs are commonplace, and everyday ableism is such a big thing. If you follow #AccessibilityPSA on facebook you know about all the dumb things people do because they don't consider the needs (or lives) of disabled people as equal to their own. And very frequently when we speak up about it, we are shut down. HARD. And I'm really tired of it.
If someone tells you they need something, listen. When a whole community tells you something is necessary and important, or will cause harm, if your first response is to try and patronizingly explain things (to a group who has had to deal with this every fucking day), or talk over them, or assume you know better, or have more insight, you need to check yourself and your massive fucking privilege. That is called ableism when directed towards disabled people, and it's not okay. I am certainly not saying that disabled people are always right. We are humans like everyone else and totally capable of mistakes, malice, and just being plain wrong just like abled folks. I'm not saying you should never ask questions, or share your expertise and experiences. But what I am saying is that talking from a place of privilege over a marginalized group, failing to listen or only half-listening then "yeah, well..."-ing, that disregarding the needs of others because it suits you and your agenda is shitty. 100% shitty.
The straw ban, in its stricter/est form(s), hurts disabled people. There is no argument left to be had. That's fact. There are ways we can reduce straw usage, or actually do something useful for the environment and address other actually pressing issues to make our world a cleaner place without sacrificing our minorities. I promise you.
And here's the thing that really gets me about the fucking self-righteous privilege of those loudly supporting the straw ban. Like I mentioned above, single-use plastic straws are only 0.03% of the plastic waste in the ocean. Things like fishing nets, plastic shopping bags, balloons, and water bottles are much bigger sources of plastic. And moving back from plastic, cigarette butts, candy/food wrappers, microbeads, and styrofoam cups are MUCH bigger pollutants. Or our fuel-inefficient SUVs, or even efficient vehicles that we drive all over the place for funsies. Or putting pipelines across our indigenous people's land (& the industries surrounding that). Or our farming practices. I could go on for pages, but the point is, if folks actually wanted to make an environmental impact, there are ways we could do so that would actually make a difference. But you see, those things require effort. Or a bit of money. You have to buy and bring a reusable bag. Or get a less "fun" vehicle. Or bring your own water bottle with you. Or invest in solar. Or change your skin care program. Or improve your eating habits. But see, those things, which would actually make a difference, require work, adaptation. But banning straws? Well, if you don't really need a straw, it makes very little difference if you have one or not, or what it's made from. No real change is actually required in your life, and you can pat yourself on the back for being a good environmentalist, while people who are already marginalized suffer for your selfishness.
That's right. From where I stand, a full-on straw ban is nothing but selfish privilege shining brightly at the expense of the disabled community. And that's super shitty. Well-intentioned? Maybe. Shitty, self-righteous ableism none the less. Absolutely.
I recently applied to be on our local task force regarding a straw and plastic bag ban in our community. I am an environmentalist, a small business owner, and a disability rights activist and educator. I think this gives me a really grounded and well-rounded viewpoint on the conversation. And currently, my recommendation is "have both plastic and some more environmentally friendly straw options in all public places that currently have straws, and let's get rid of styrofoam cups and plastic shopping bags. Also, should we address our substantial fishing community while we're at it, since 40% of ocean plastic is fishing nets?"
We aren't trying to cling to plastic because we love polluting our world. In fact, a lot of us feel super guilty about the amount of plastic it takes to keep us alive. Rather, we are trying to create a healthy and equal society and world where everyone can do their part and still engage together. Because a world fueled by discrimination (and yes, this is discrimination) is not a world I want anything to do with. Honestly, do you?
Post Script: additional information on the Straw Ban/disabled communities concerns:
- Rambling Justice on the Straw Ban
- Why Disabled People Need Plastic Straws
- Plastic Straw Bans Are The Latest Policy To Forget The Disabled Community
- Why The #StrawBan Sucks For People With Disabilities
- Why Banning Plastic Straws Upsets People With Disabilities
- NPR - Why People With Disabilities Want Bans On Plastic Straws To Be More Flexible
- The Straw Ban: Balancing Environmental Concerns with Disability Rights