By Ben Mattlin
Editor’s note: Suddenly, a lot of people are asking: “What’s the big deal about straws and disability?” Our special contributor, Ben Mattlin, spells out the problems. Clearly. Finally.
Recently, when Starbucks announced it would stop giving out disposable plastic straws by 2020, it drew a line in the sand.
For people like me, it was bad enough that municipalities such as Oakland, Berkeley, Malibu, Miami Beach and Seattle had banned the bendy drinking tubes. Proposals for similar ordinances have also appeared in New York, San Francisco and parts of Europe. But I don’t live in those places. Starbucks, on the other hand, is everywhere! I count two within a half-mile of my home. So to me, this was the last “last straw.”
Granted, I shouldn’t feel offended. I’m in favor of clean beaches, safe water, and breathable air. I’m not anti-Green. It’s just that, as a person with a severe disability, I depend on one-use straws every day, all day long, for my sustenance.
My disability is an inborn neuromuscular delight called spinal muscular atrophy. I have no use of my hands and can’t hold a cup or raise a spoon. As a kid, I’d bite the edge of plastic tumblers (and sometimes glass ones) to hold them to my lips with the proper tilt. In time, though, that maneuver proved awkward. My jaw grew weaker, plus too many cups collapsed, slipped or shattered.
Having other people lift and tip cups to my lips was a recipe for disaster, too. Bendable straws became my perfect solution.
I use straws because I have to
In college, I endured razzing over this method. (No, it’s not true that drinking beer through a straw gets you drunk faster!) But I didn’t care. For me, straws weren’t for fun. I used them because I had to.
These days, they deliver my morning coffee; the pliable conduits are unfazed by hot temperatures. Midday, they channel vocal-cord-restoring juice and water to my parched and frequently catarrh-inflamed throat. They’re also useful for the evening cocktail or wine, and for slurping broth.
What’s more, they enable me to direct the flow of liquid to just the right spot in my esophagus to push food down. This is key, because my disability affects my ability to swallow. I’m also at high risk for aspiration—meaning edibles and beverages easily go down the wrong pipe, blocking airways. If that happens, I don’t have the muscles to cough stuff out.
Could other types of straws perform the same miracles? Not nearly as well. I frequently have to grip the tip of a straw with my lips and teeth to steady it. Paper straws collapse and degrade under that pressure, and metal ones are too firm and distort taste.
Make no mistake: I’m far from the only one who feels alienated, even threatened, by the #strawban trend. In a Greenpeace blog last spring, disability activist Jamie Szymkowiak wrote: “A soggy paper straw increases the risk of choking. Most paper and silicone alternatives are not flexible, and this is an important feature for people with mobility related impairments. Metal, glass and bamboo straws present obvious dangers for people who have difficulty controlling their bite. … In addition, re-useable straws in public places are not always hygienic or easy to clean.”
On Facebook, my disabled allies go so far as to dub the straw-banning movement “able-ism.” One wag posted, “Ahh, the joys of being able-bodied, and the freedom it gives to tell disabled people what they should and should not be able to do.”
I prefer to think it’s blithe ignorance, not downright meanness. But then I hear environmental activists such as Dune Ives from the advocacy group “Strawless in Seattle” tell NPR, “Imagine drinking a glass of water without a straw in it. It actually is possible.”
I’m worried about what’s next
To be sure, no one is proposing outlawing my trusty straws completely. I can still carry around my own stash, which I do anyway, like a quiver of arrows. One day, I might need special permission to buy and use a plastic straw, like a doctor’s prescription. If so, will straws then acquire the stigma of medical equipment, complete with higher pricing and insurance claim forms?
More pressing, though, for me, is that these strictures further marginalize an already marginalized population. However well-intentioned, the outright ban becomes a form of discrimination because it doesn’t allow for reasonable access to plastic straws for people whose disabilities require that they use them.
As for Starbucks, I have a counterproposal: why not, instead, ban plastic bottles that are just a little too tall for standard straws?
Ben Mattlin is the author, most recently, of IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance.