The petition begins: The New Jersey Disability Community wholeheartedly opposes efforts by companies, cities, and states to ban single use plastic straws. These policies create barriers to independence, community integration, and daily living for people with disabilities, work counter to our community ideals of universal access, and place an unnecessary burden on people with disabilities to fight for the accommodations we need to live independently.
The petition was started because well-intended but unwitting legislators are proposing legislation that will literally force people with disabilities who need straws to drink to bring their own to restaurants. The proposed legislation is aimed at saving whales and turtles by keeping plastic straws out of the ocean. A noble and worthy cause, but why pick on people with disabilities who need straws?
Many people with various types of disabilities rely on single-use plastic straws to drink, eat, and take medication independently. Many people reading this can relate to this. Currently, no alternatives to single-use flexible plastic straws exist that are safe, sanitary, and affordable for people with disabilities. Until these alternatives exist, it is unacceptable to create more barriers to independence and access by restricting plastic straw use.
Much of the fervor surrounding plastic straws is based entirely on viral videos and false statistics. Plastic straws make up only about .03% of plastic waste in the ocean (fishing nets by contrast make up 46%). To risk the rights to independence and liberty that our community has fought for only .03% of waste is unacceptable to our community! Furthermore, “offer-first” policies at restaurants have been shown to reduce straw use by up to 80% without creating any barriers to access.
Everybody wants to save the whale and the turtle, but nobody outside of our community seems to grasp that straws are tools for people with disabilities to live healthy, independent, and productive lives as equal members of our community. The disability community believes in creating policies that protect the environment, but we also believe that this can be done in ways that do not harm the disability community.
Though some cities and states have incorporated “disability exceptions” into their straw ban legislation, the disability community remains firm in our opposition. Medical exceptions force people with disabilities to disclose their disability to store workers. Requiring this puts an undue burden on disabled customers who already experience discrimination and victimization.
Misconceptions and stereotypes about what a “real” disability looks like can also lead wait staff to question the validity of a customer’s need for a straw causing them to deny, harass, or shame the customer. Do we want teenaged wait staff deciding who has a disability?/
The harsh penalties established by straw ban legislation provide incentive for vendors to err on the side of caution by routinely denying straws to anyone who requests them. It is also unlikely that stores will continue to stock plastic straws because of the (false) perception that people with disabilities make up only a small percentage of the population. This again creates an added barrier for people with disabilities. Now, when we decide to go out to dinner, not only do we have to call ahead to find if the space is accessible, but we must also find out if they have straws
While some may suggest that people who need straws simply carry around their own, this is an unfair request for several reasons. First, with straw bans sweeping the nation, single use plastic straws will inevitably become more expensive and difficult to obtain even for individual use. Second, it creates an unnecessary financial burden on people with disabilities who already experience increased rates of poverty, functioning as a form of “disability tax.” Eventually, these costs will be passed on to the taxpayer as the need for straws becomes “medicalized” to justify them as medical necessity so Medicaid picks up the ever increasing expense
In light of all of these reasons and more, the disability community is asking the New Jersey Legislators three things. First to reject any legislation that restricts access to single use plastic straws. Second, create an action plan to ensure the voices of people with disabilities are heard on all legislation before it reaches a vote. Finally, pass legislation that explicitly protects the right of people to access single-use plastic straws upon request in accordance with the ADA.
Maggie Leppert of the Alliance Center for Independence provided much of the factual foundation for this column. My thanks to Maggie, a future leader in the NJ disability advocacy community.
Norman A. Smith
Follow me on Twitter @normansmith02
Follow us on Twitter @TheFreedomGuys
“Like” us on Facebook.com/ProjectFreedomInc