City's proposed plastic-straw ban raises accessibility questions for people with disabilities

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      Norman Kunc keeps an eight-inch piece of flexible food-grade plastic tubing in his pocket. He uses it as reusable straw, so he doesn’t have to get plastic ones every time he goes out.

      “It’s not the most hygienic place to keep a straw,” Kunc—a writer, speaker, and disability activist—told the Georgia Straight by email. “Besides, I always have to deal with the straw whenever I take my wallet or keys out.”

      Kunc has cerebral palsy and relies on a straw to drink. But his pocket straw hasn’t stopped him from worrying about the effects that Vancouver’s new plastic-straw ban could have on people with disabilities.

      “What will happen if I go out to a restaurant or bar and forget my straws? I simply will not be able to drink anything, not even water!” he said.

      On Wednesday (May 16), Vancouver city council voted to approve in principle a ban on single-use plastics such as straws, foam cups, and food containers.

      Jenjira/Getty Images

      “I am concerned that they [the city] have not adequately taken into account the needs of people with disabilities who count on plastic a necessity for consuming beverages and food,” Sam Turcott—director of the advocacy access program at Disability Alliance B.C.—said in a phone call with the Straight.

      Deep Cove enacted a ban on plastic straws starting May 7. Local merchants there give paper straws to patrons upon request. But Turcott worries that such alternatives to plastic straws haven’t been tested extensively with the disabled community and that more consultation needs to be done.

      “I think that the city’s impulse in wanting to become a greener city is a good one, but that can’t be at the expense of the rights of people with disabilities,” Turcott said

      City council has promised to consult with “affected businesses, appropriate civic agencies, community health groups and other organizations” and create a report by December 31 detailing the implementation strategy.

      Cathy Browne, cochair of the city's persons with disabilities advisory committee, said that there was no one-size-fits-all alternative to plastic straws.

      “There are as many requirements as there are disabilities out there,” she said by phone. “For some people, a paper straw might be appropriate. may not have the flexibility that’s needed for somebody.”

      There are different kinds of disabilities that could result in people requiring a straw to drink, such as motion disabilities, manual-dexterity disabilities, difficulties with swallowing, and spinal-cord injuries. These different conditions may affect the sorts of straws people need, whether it’s something flexible, something very durable, or something that can easily be manipulated using the chin or facial muscles.

      Browne, who is a legally blind photographer, was also concerned about the burden that people with disabilities could face if they had to pay for reusable straws out of their own pockets.

      “Are some of these alternatives expensive, and what does that do to a population that already is very challenged from a poverty standpoint?” she said.

      The persons with disabilities advisory committee consulted on the policy several times before it was passed by the council, but no wording was included in the May 16 motion to specifically address accessibility.

      The original policy suggestion was that plastic straws could be obtained upon request, but a petition from a large number of local restaurants asking for stronger action led to the recommendation for a ban.

      Browne suggested that there should be an amendment that allows people with disabilities to ask for a plastic straw if they need one.

      Albert Shamess, director of waste management and resource recovery for the city, told the Straight by phone that his department was sensitive to different groups' needs and recognized the need for further conversation. 

      “There’s the opportunity to include exemptions in this final document that goes to council,” Shamess said, referring the planned December 31 report. He added that he did not know the best solution.

      “We believe that by working together with the community as a whole, over time, we can have a much more significant impact than we can if we as a legislative organization pass a requirement then start to figure out what to do after,” he said. “We’re much more interested in getting some of these things addressed upfront.”

      Shamess also confirmed that the proposed ban was meant to address straws distributed “without thought” in the food-service industry, and it should not affect people’s ability to buy plastic straws from a grocery store for personal use—though he would like these to be replaced over time with sustainable alternatives.

      According to Shamess, the consultation process should give disability advocates more chance to make their voices heard. For Browne, it’s key that people with disabilities retain access to basic necessities, such as the ability to drink easily

      Kunc pointed this out: “If you think about it, drinking straws are an accommodation for access no different than ramps, accessible washrooms, and designated parking spaces."