Grasping at Straws: The Ableism of the Straw Ban

  • A
  • A
  • A

Erin Vallely

It is no secret that humans and corporations are the main cause of global pollution. Most people want to help the environment and do their part to make responsible choices. However, having disabilities, chronic illnesses and other health problems make it harder to be environmentally friendly. The latest push to ban single-use plastic straws is well-intentioned but does not take into consideration that such straws are a tool disabled people rely on, rather than a frivolous, planet-killing item that can easily be done away with without impacting consumers. Disabled people who rely on straws must be included in the conversation, listened to and respected. Our needs matter. 

What’s the issue?

Single-use plastics are among the top pollutants on Earth and in our oceans. As a stepping stone to decrease such waste, environmental groups are asking individuals and businesses to do away with straws and other similar single-use plastic products. While this seems like a reasonable request for many people (albeit relatively fruitless), this movement negatively affects individuals with disabilities, chronic illnesses and other health issues that require them to use straws. 

How it hurts disabled individuals

For many individuals with mobility and strength issues, they cannot lift cups high enough to drink from them. Some individuals with poor motor coordination cannot safely hold a drink steady without spilling it. Certain medicines must also be taken via straw. Bendable plastic straws allow individuals to nourish themselves and avoid spilling things on themselves, and others.

In some cases, reusable straws can be substituted for a single use one but that isn’t always the case.  Such straws must be properly sterilized after every use. For those whose disability or living situation makes this impractical, if not downright impossible, reusable straws are simply not an option. Additionally, metal, bamboo, glass and acrylic straws pose injury risks, especially for those with tremors, spastic episodes, and temperature sensitivity conditions. Paper and pasta straws also put individuals at risk of choking. Compostable straws made of other natural materials increase the likelihood of allergic reactions, which can be deadly, and often require special processing to compost safely and correctly.  Reusable and/or alternative straws are also significantly more expensive for consumers and can be cost prohibitive. Further, completely banning straws will lead to increased stigmatization of disabled individuals if we have to carry around our own, or request them. Many of us already have to preplan all our outings and carry medical supplies and equipment with us everywhere we go. Adding another thing to the list of vital things we have to carry with us creates more opportunities for something bad to happen if we forget or there is a spur of the moment change of plans. Lastly, even if businesses are supposed to have straws available upon request, it does not mean they will comply

What should be done

The focus must shift from banning straws to pressuring the manufacturers and corporations to create an environmentally and disability friendly alternative. Even better, environmental and disability groups should work together to come up with more impactful ways of improving the environment. 

What you can do

The best thing activists and allies can do is advocate for nondiscriminatory policies. People should also not assume they know better than the individual who seems opposed to the ban. Most of us care about the environment and want to do our part but some accommodations and supplies are simply non-negotiable. We do not deserve to be shamed for our needs. When you hear or see people complaining about people opposing the straw bans, educate them on the issue and explain that it is not acceptable to judge or shame others for caring for themselves and staying safe. 



Erin Vallely lives with a rare form of muscular dystrophy and is a proud wheelchair user. Having graduated with a B.A. in Sociology and Anthropology with a Spanish minor from Wells College in Aurora, NY, she will pursue her Master of Public Administration at Cornell University with a focus on disability rights, advocacy, and policy. In her spare time, Erin enjoys reading about other people’s experiences, supporting other minority groups, and traveling.