Straws have been there for me.
In the years since my injury, the simple plastic tubes have predictably and silently supported my hydration after damage to my spinal cord took all use of my arms and hands. Out in the world, my requests for a straw have previously been granted with little more discussion than an “of course” or the surprisingly common and awkwardly flirtatious warning that drinking beer through a straw “will get you drunk faster.” In my case, that latter goal has yet to be a real factor in my straw use, but I don’t mind a good-natured poke. What I do mind, is the recent uncomfortable turn my straw requests and related conversations have taken.
While it is being discussed, my city, Portland, Oregon, has yet to ban or place limitations on the use of plastic straws. Yet, in the last few months, despite my visible need for physical assistance and wheelchair, I have been subjected to more than one server lightly chastising my straw request or explaining their discomfort with the environmental impact of straws. The first time it was surprising, but I now casually brace myself to defend my straw needs in case any lectures pop up over my ice water.
The Villainization of Straws
If you haven’t noticed, the villainization of the straw is working. Internet campaigns and a strong anti-straw environmental lobby has been effective both with citizens and small and large business owners. Entire cities, like Seattle, and my hometown of San Luis Obispo, California, have banned plastic straws. In some locations, fines and jail time have been discussed for plastic straw violations – Santa Barbara, California, a town where I’ve recently lived, has passed such an ordinance. On top of this, straw-free declarations have been made by multiple national airlines, hotels and food corporations, like Marriott and Starbucks, among others, promising to phase out straws in upcoming months despite expert assessments that straws have a relatively small environmental impact overall.
With all of this, it’s no longer shocking when a food service employee lets me know they will soon not stock straws or that they feel uncomfortable serving them. Despite what I imagine to be a rather obvious physical disability, I now make sure to take the time to educate service staff, that while I, too, support less unnecessary straw waste, for me and many others with disabilities, straws are a simple, safe, and clean tool that aids in beverage enjoyment and rehydration. At this point, I’m choosing to inform, but the necessity to do so interrupts my customer experience and leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Straws Equal True Welcoming and Diplomacy
In the 16 years I have relied on them, straws have notably stood out as a sign of true welcoming and diplomacy from the service industry. Growing up in a wine region and adopting beer brewing with friends as an after-injury hobby, I’ve found myself as the first patron to ask about a straw in a number of new tasting rooms, restaurants, or bars. Occasionally, they don’t have one. I mean, who drinks wine and beer through straws anyway? The answer here is easy: I do.
Over the years, I’ve had thoughtful staff retrieve straws from nearby restaurants or offer me their own wrapped and unused straws from personal beverages. More notably still, on my second visit to many previously straw-less establishments, businesses have gone out of their way to let me know that they now have straws. More than once, I have witnessed aware staff thoughtfully asking other patrons with disabilities if a straw would improve their experience, too. Believe me, if a restaurant owner or server wants to impress me, my friends, my family or my date, remembering my straw needs are a surefire way to gain repeat business. In my life, this simple gesture has been the catalyst for a number of long-standing connections and friendships.
For anybody wondering, I do often keep “emergency backup straws” with me when possible and I have tried reusable metal or plastic and paper alternatives. These options are not my preference, pose choking hazards and safety risks for some, and place the burden of responsibility and cleanliness on individuals with disabilities. I am committed to improving our environmental future and feel confident that I can do my part while continuing to responsibly use plastic straws. In my home, I reuse glass straws, but items like these are fragile, expensive, and I am uncomfortable with any requirements to carry one with me at all times in order to access a beverage.
Could Straws be Ambassadors to Accessibility Awareness?
Could it be that straws are the ambassadors to accessibility awareness? That remains to be seen, but the discussion around them has shown itself to be one of the rare opportunities to educate a wider audience about the less visible accessibility tools we utilize and to highlight the role of the disability community as consumers.
As I mentioned, a number of airlines have recently made statements committing to the phaseout of straws in planes. Members of the United Spinal team have been involved in recent discussions around increased overall air travel accessibility. When the subject of straws was addressed, a general lack of awareness of the burden this would place on travelers with disabilities was expressed. With education, true concern expedited a necessity to find a solution that won’t leave travelers with disabilities without straws and dry in the sky. What that will be, though, remains to be seen.
This is the scenario being repeated across the country in relation to straws. Without previous understanding of the needs of the disability community and a well-meaning societal push to “do good,” judgment has been clouded. Communities and companies are committing to change, but due to lack of awareness, are not including a plan for alternative accommodation. This is not an isolated incident or issue — the voices of individuals with disabilities are often not included at tables which determine our own access and inclusion.
The overarching problem here is the prevalence with which people with disabilities are left out of the decision-making process despite the impact policy changes like this one have on our lives. Given the viral nature of this issue, it is now up to us to fight for a timely resolution or risk losing this key piece of accessibility. For now, straw availability by request is an easy option that works as a universal benefit. Whether you rely on straws in public or not, we need all-wheels-on-deck to evolve this conversation and inform small and large businesses of our communities’ needs as customers.
Straws allow me additional grace, safety, cleanliness, flexibility and independence. They are a simple solution and an unsung hero of my continued hydration. I need a straw to be available when I need it. That straw should be free of disintegrating paper, responsibility to clean or any kind of accompanying lecture about why I shouldn’t be using them. I use them because I am a busy human working and moving about this sometimes less than inclusive world, and I need a drink.
Brook McCall, MPH, is the grassroots advocacy manager for United Spinal Association.