LIFE

Woman’s Nightmare Dining Experience Shows How Plastic Straw Bans Hurt People With Disabilities

by Kim Wong-Shing
Kim Wong-Shing is a staff writer at LittleThings. Her work spans beauty, wellness, pop culture, identity, food, and other topics. She is a contributing writer at NaturallyCurly, and her work has also appeared in HelloGiggles, Lifehacker, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and other outlets. She grew up in Philadelphia, attended Brown University, and is now based in New Orleans.

Plastic straw bans might seem like a win — they reduce waste, and waste is bad, right? But there are a lot of disabled people who need plastic straws to drink.

Plastic straw bans actively hurt those people, as one Twitter thread makes painfully clear.

Twitter user @EhlersDanlosgrl has a degenerative joint disease in her spine. The disease makes it painful for her to pick up a full glass to drink; the mere act causes muscle spams under her shoulders. She has to use a straw to drink comfortably.

So when she went out to a local restaurant to eat, she asked the waitress for one of the straws in her apron. A simple request, right?

Sadly, the restaurant’s policy is to hand out straws only to those who “need” them, like the elderly. The waitress didn’t believe that she had a disability because she “seemed fine.”

The experience ended in embarrassment and anger. It could’ve all been avoided if plastic straw bans were more carefully implemented with the needs of disabled folks in mind.

Plastic straw bans have been sweeping the country in recent years. Seattle became the first US city to ban plastic straws in 2018, and other cities and states have followed suit.

Many companies have also pledged their own initiatives to eliminate plastic straws in their restaurants. Starbucks, for example, plans to phase out plastic straws by 2020.

Environmentalists hail these new policies as a victory — plastic straws are a bane on the environment, as are all forms of single-use plastic.

But disability activists have long cautioned against these wholesale bans, because plastic straws are a necessary tool for many people with disabilities. In fact, flexible straws were originally developed for use in hospitals.

Even if plastic straws are banned for everyone except those who truly need them, that forces disabled people to out themselves and go out of their way to ask for what they need. Not all disabled people “look disabled.”

And now that straw bans are going into effect anyway, they’re having the exact effect that disability activists predicted.

Twitter user @EhlersDanlosgirl wrote a thread about what happened when she asked for a straw at a local restaurant.

The 21-year-old noticed that her waitress had a straw in her apron.

“As she poured the water I said ‘excuse me miss can I have a straw?'” she wrote.

But the waitress informed her that “we can’t just give them out” and walked away from the table.

 

“My dad flagged her down and when she returned to the table, I asked again ‘miss sorry but I really do need a straw,'” she continued.

The waitress replied that they only give out straws to “the elderly.”

 

“I explained that I am disabled, that I have degenerative joint disease in my spine and picking up a full glass to drink causes muscle spasms under my shoulder blades,” she continued.

“She met that with ‘you seemed fine when you walked in.'”

YIKES! This is exactly why it’s not fair for disabled people to be forced to prove their disability just to get a straw.

 

After five minutes, still no straw had appeared.

“Finally I ask for a manager and the waitress looks pissed as [expletive] but goes to get them,” the girl wrote.

The manager did finally give her a straw, but not because he believed her about her disability. After he gave it to her, he whispered to the waitress: “People like that aren’t worth it, just give them the [expletive] straw.”

 

“I was SO frustrated… I just started crying,” she wrote.

“My dad got up and followed the manager back to the front where he then LET HER HAVE IT. He had let me handle it up until that point Bc I had asked him to.”

Things escalated at that point, as her father was (justifiably) very angry.

“And while he was shouting, people were turning to look at me.. he was literally just shouting ‘her spine is deteriorating she uses crutches most days you MORON’ and I was SO EMBARRASSED,” she said.

“I got up and walked out of the restaurant and my mom followed me.”

 

They hadn’t ordered their food yet, so they just left the restaurant rather than endure more mistreatment.

In conclusion, she wrote:

“STRAW BAN IS [expletive]. It’s just an excuse for ableism. A waitress should NOT get to ‘decide’ if I’m validly disabled or not.”

Amen!

So what is the alternative to this situation? We MUST balance the need to be as environmentally friendly as possible with the need to treat disabled people like, ya know, people. Accessibility is important, and too often it’s at the bottom of the list of priorities.

A great place to start is to actually listen to disabled people about their experiences, which is why this @EhlersDanlosgrl thread is so important.