In this blog, I focus in on current developments around the proposed ban on plastic drinking straws. I look at this both as an issue in its own right and relate it to wider, more general matters. In summary, I think the straw ban illustrates how the needs of disabled people are increasingly marginalised, and how this can be responded to.
Without being able to effectively convey their views using the right channels, hooks and levers, there is a risk that the views of disabled people will continue to be marginalised in policy making.
Why it isn’t ‘just a straw’
Simply put, straws are an essential for a lot of people. My wife is one of those people. Without a straw she cannot drink at all for any purpose from the every day cup of coffee to when she needs to take tablets. Such is the importance of the straw that the availability of them (or otherwise!) has been known to fundamentally alter plans. Now I never leave home without them!
On occasions, we have been supplied with non plastic straws, especially paper ones. The paper ones in particular have almost with exception been very poor substitutes. I often think that people who suggest using them have never had to actually do so themselves. There are other options, such as reusable straws, which have not proved to be hygienic or practical (using a public sink to rinse them out is not fun!) or comparatively very expensive and themselves impractical (see bamboo straws and metal straws.)
It frustrates me when people refer to them as ‘just’ straws. Imagine going to a restaurant to be told you had to bring your own cutlery. Its inconvenient and another barrier to accessing an environment which can already be difficult enough in and of itself. For me, it is a further example of how medical model based thinking is increasingly reestablishing itself as the default position. You have an impairment, and it is down to you to provide the solution. This is a regressive position in my view.
There are also broader symbolic aspects to how the straw issue feels as everyday matter. ‘You can just ask for a straw the conversation goes. Of course you can, but it is how it feels to experience that which it is important to grasp. To ask for a straw after having to ask for help to get into premises, a lower level of or a specific type of seating and/or booking may just be one step too far.
Feeling multiple layers of self consciousness due to the adaptations needed to an environment is not fun – and can deter you from wanting to bother from venturing into places in its own right. Asking for a straw is like placing the final one on the camel back in some situations, and those layers of complexity and difficulty can lead to not wanting to bother to access the environment in the first place. Elsewhere I have referred to this as the ‘war behind the door‘ and that struggle is a very real one!
Straws and the policy making process
I see the straw issue as being reflective of a more general set of issues about the policy making process in general, and how the views and interests of disabled people are represented. Or more to the point, about how they are not.
On the impact assessment of the proposed ban on plastic straws the impact on the people who need to use straws is given minimal reference. A medical exemption is proposed for those who need to use straws for ‘accessibility needs.’ The consultation continues as follows:
‘It is proposed to provide for these exemptions by allowing wholesalers to import and stock plastic straws for distribution to, pharmacies and pharmacy departments in both hospitals and retailers for supply to those that need them. We will be seeking views on whether online pharmacies should be allowed to supply plastic straws. It is also proposed that we allow catering establishments such as pubs and restaurants to provide plastic straws to customers on a specific ‘on demand’ basis.’
The framing of this exception is both interesting and problematic. Defining the problem in medical terms means that disabled people will potentially need to have a prescription to buy their straws! For me there is also a reductive element to this framing, neglecting the wider social aspects to these issues. There is also a ‘slippery slope’ aspect to framing such as this I think in that disabled people are cast not as autonomous beings, but merely as patients to be dealt with in medicalised terms.
There is also an accessibility issue here. To be able to respond to, engage with and correct such views, disabled people and the organisations that work with them have to be able to engage with the policy making process to make their views heard. This may be difficult and daunting for many, and raises a need for training in how to work with policy making processes such as this one to ensure views are heard.
There are many layers to the important debates around the straw ban, which go far beyond face value.