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Disability inclusion or sustainability: the last (plastic) straw.  

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Ella Dickinson reveals the often overlooked impacts of sustainability campaigns on the lives of disabled people.

15% of the global population identify as having a disability, yet sustainability campaigns are frequently seen to be at odds with disabled people’s needs and rights to live independently. The United Nations define sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This definition itself states that people’s needs should not be compromised – however this is happening for disabled people. People with disabilities are more affected by their social environment than by their bodies. Disability is “a dynamic interaction between a person’s health condition, environmental factors and personal factors.”

There is an institutional illusion with recent popular sustainability campaigns that the perceived item that is causing an environmental issue should either be entirely removed or not used at all – straws are a perfect example of this. In 2018 Theresa May banned plastic straws alongside other singular-use products, this received major backlash so some eateries supplied paper straws, yet many saw it as a perfect cost-cutting measure so stopped supplying them at all. However, what has been missed from many narratives are the requirement for products for disabled people.

The UK Government states that it is “illegal to supply or purchase single-use straws unless exempt”, whilst this is an inclusive policy, it is not an accessible policy. Other straws have been developed to replace the single-use plastic ones such as metal, paper and bamboo. However, for those with illnesses such as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, Cerebral Palsy or sensory disabilities such as Autism, plastic straws are essential to independently consume fluids.

Reading this right now, many people are thinking ‘well they can just bring their own’, however it is incredibly hard to source plastic straws and is even illegal for the selected Pharmacies that do supply the straws (who are the only business allowed to sell the straws) to advertise that they sell them – customers have to request them and prove that they are disabled (or a carer) and legally require them.

Daniel Gilbert, a 25-year-old from Kentucky who has weakened muscles due to Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy told CNN, “I’d be more than happy to use more environmentally friendly straws. “[The disabled community] isn’t trying to be anti-environment. We’re just protecting disabled people”. Campaigns such as #ChallengingStarbucks originated to try to raise awareness as to why making plastic straws illegal is not a feasible option for disabled people.

On a personal note, I was born with one hand and living in a two-handed world can be hard enough as it is. I have a passion for sustainability and study Environmental Science at York, however, even in my lifetime, I have noticed an increase in sustainability initiatives which have created accessibility issues for myself. A recent example of this is the change in Covid-19 lateral flow tests. In 2020 when the tests first began, I could independently open, complete and dispose of lateral flow tests. However, as time has progressed, the size of the plastic packaging has decreased and the liquid container now has a seal on it. I am now unable to open any of the packaging of the lateral flow tests and therefore unable to complete a Covid-19 test independently. In a world where it is essential to take these tests to keep myself, friends and family safe, I cannot take a test without assistance. Whilst I fully support sustainable living, schemes in place should not directly affect a disabled person’s life in a negative manner.

The consumer-focused sustainability campaigns can no longer ignore the injustice of removing essential aids and discriminating against disabled people. People with disabilities bring a valuable perspective to environmental and social justice movements that serve to broaden and enrich the agendas of these movements. Whilst ableism might be unintentional, finding a middle ground between improving behaviour toward the environment while making room for the needs of the disabled community has to be done with consideration. When it comes to making policies and laws, every member of the community should have a say. Products such as plastic straws should not be illegal or banned, replace them if needed but ensure they are accessible – for example, having paper straws on the bar but some plastic straws beneath a bar, making them available for anyone who requires a plastic straw to independently drink.

To reflect, sustainability should be without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – as stated by the United Nations. Whilst more needs to be done to increase sustainable living, the Disabled Community should not be at an impediment due to these schemes. An approach of removing a product entirely or doing nothing at all should not be taken. The plastic straw ban and the reduced Covid-19 lateral flow test packaging are just two examples of the many environmental influenced changes that are preventing disabled people from living independently. We should be working towards an accessible, sustainable lifestyle that ensures the right to independent living.

About the author: Ella Dickinson is a third-year Environmental Science student at the University of York with a passion for a sustainable future in a socially equitable manner.

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