Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Glamour and Racked, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
In an effort to reduce ocean pollution, Starbucks announced on Monday that it plans to eliminate plastic straws from all stores by 2020. While lessening our environmental footprint is important, Starbucks (and other companies making similar decisions) seem to have forgotten one major concern: How a world without plastic straws will impact people with disabilities, many of whom use these types of straws out of necessity.
The Seattle-based coffee giant outlined its plans in a press release that seemed to signal a new era for the company. Soon, plastic straws will be a thing of the past at all 28,000 stores worldwide, replaced with what some are calling “adult sippy cups“: A straw-less lid for all iced coffee, tea and espresso beverages.
Straws made from paper or compostable plastic will be available upon request for customers who prefer or need them. However, there is still concern surrounding the option of paper straws, because they might not be sturdy enough for people with limited muscle control.
There’s no doubt that Starbucks’ intentions are pure, and seeing companies take steps to become more eco-friendly should always be applauded. But as a person with a disability, I can’t help but hold back on the applause – just a little.
These types of unilateral decisions simply don’t take into account the needs of those who will be most impacted. Sure, not everyone will need plastic straws, but people with disabilities should be given the option to use them if they need to.
In an email response, Starbucks told me, “We will work with the disability community to ensure we continue to meet their needs going forward.”
And while that’s at least an acknowledgment of the issue, it doesn’t immediately address the difficulty that disabled people have grasping or holding a cup, or even drinking directly from a cup.
Take me, for example. My hands are deformed as a result of my disability, and this makes it hard for me to pick up some cups. My neck is also fully fused, which makes using straws ideal, because I can’t bend my neck back to sip from a lid.
But I’m not the only one. For Karin Hitselberger, a writer and disability advocate, this access is a requirement. “To the average nondisabled person, a plastic straw seems like a nice-to-have accessory, but for many disabled people, plastic straws are a necessity,” she wrote last month for Rooted In Rights. “Straws are an access issue, because without them I wouldn’t even be able to take a drink of water in most public places.”
The move to eliminate plastic straws is just the latest example of the able-bodied world overlooking the disability community when making policy decisions that will directly affect their lives. And even more than just overlooking us, it seems like people with disabilities are not being included in conversations that strip them of some of their autonomy.
Sadly, though, this trend is nothing new.
We’ve seen it in colleges debating the banning of laptops and other tech devices from the classroom. An outright ban on such devices is harmful to those with disabilities who rely on technology for everything from note-taking to test-taking.
We’ve seen it at concert venues that forget about things like accessible seating, leaving disabled folks unable to see the stage.
And we’ve seen it, most recently, in the various marches (i.e. the Women’s March, the Families Belong Together March, etc.) that have excluded people with disabilities because of accessibility issues, including not being wheelchair accessible. In marches like these, where we’re demanding justice and equality, including those with disabilities should be a given.
In fact, society’s lack of inclusion and accessibility is the very reason Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act in the first place. The landmark 1990 legislation aimed to remove barriers and combat discrimination against people with disabilities.
The introduction to the ADA reads: “The ADA is one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life – to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in state and local government programs and services.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
The ADA was a win because it eliminated barriers to access by requiring basic accommodations such as ramps and elevators – structures that able-bodied people might take for granted, but that disabled people had to fight long and hard for.
It seems our battle is far from over. Though Starbucks calls its decision an “environmental milestone,” it’s important to remember that this isn’t a milestone for everyone. For many of those with disabilities, this is a significant step back.
I urge Starbucks to seek out the opinions and recommendations from people with disabilities in the future. Only then will decisions like these truly be a milestone for everyone.