Plastic straw bans prompt questions, concern for people with disabilities

CLEVELAND - Efforts by cities and restaurants across the country – most recently Starbucks – to ban plastic straws have been praised by environmentalists that believe such campaigns will reduce plastic waste, especially in oceans. However, the plastic straw bans are creating concern for people with disabilities and their families.

Whether it’s with your morning coffee run or late night fast food run, plastic straws are about as ubiquitous as the value menu. However, many of those humble straws end up in landfills or, even worse, the ocean. One report suggests plastic straws make up more than 7 percent of plastics found in the United States when measured by piece.

The war against the plastic straw has picked up steam in 2018. The City of Seattle banned plastic straws earlier this month. Just this week, Starbucks announced plans to phase out the use of plastic straws by 2020. While most of the able-bodied population can certainly get by without a plastic straw, the same could not be said for children and adults with disabilities.

“I have students that would not be able to drink at lunch without a straw,” said special education teacher Nichole McCarthy, also the mother of a special needs child. “If we’re getting rid of straws, you’re actually taking away a whole consumer base, a whole group of people that won’t have access.”

To see the value of a straw to a child or adult with disabilities, spend a few minutes at the United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cleveland campus near downtown. On Friday morning, a little girl named Arianna, who’s non-verbal, was learning how to drink a Capri Sun with a plastic straw. Her speech and language pathologist, Meghan Mingee, said the plastic straw is a tool of independence for children and adults with disabilities.

“My job as a speech pathologist is to try to get the child to function in all environments. A lot of times using a straw is something they really need to use, even as a stepping tool to get to drinking from an open cup,” Mingee said. “Maybe they couldn’t close their lips fully on a cup. They might need [a straw] because they don’t have the full range of motion to drink otherwise. They might need that channeling of the liquid to swallow safely. Other people who might not have the ability to bring their hand up to the mouth - a straw is a gateway to independence in drinking.”

Without a straw, certain children and adults with disabilities may aspirate the liquid into their lungs, potentially creating a life-and-death situation.

In her classroom and her home, a straw is almost as important as her son’s motorized wheelchair or oxygen tank, McCarthy said. The straw allows him to consume liquids – the very activity that most able-bodied people take for granted.

McCarthy said she often brings plastic straws with her while taking her son out to eat or to a park. However, she said it’s unrealistic to always have one with her, especially considering the dozens of other items she has to bring for her son. The best compromise to an outright plastic straw ban, she said, would be to have them available upon request.

“I just want a straw so my kid can drink,” McCarthy said. “Yes, please make that available. Yes, make it so I have to ask for it. But let me please have one because if you’re not going to offer anything, I can honestly say my family is probably not going to come back.”

Many have proposed alternatives to plastic straws, including straws made of paper or metal. However, those materials have drawbacks, McCarthy and Mingee both said.

“If a client who does bite on a straw and the straw did get too soggy and they ended up swallowing it, that also might be an issue,” Mingee said. “People of all abilities go into restaurants so you really have to take into consideration everyone that’s there. Taking away all straws might be an issue.”

McCarthy said metal straws could be especially dangerous for people with epilepsy.

“If they were to be using a metal straw and had a seizure, that’s going to puncture their mouth or break teeth,” McCarthy said.

Mingee stressed that a potential plastic straw ban would affect children and adults with disabilities differently. Each client of hers has different needs. Some are able to drink independently with or without a straw. Others absolutely need a straw, she said.

Will Gallup, an advocate for people with disabilities and the good life ambassador for the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities, said he supports the ban on plastic straws out of concerns for the environment. However, he understands and sympathizes with those who are concerned about the challenges that the bans would present to those with disabilities.

“I don’t normally use straws that much,” Gallup said. “I think [plastic straw bans] are a very important step toward a cleaner planet, for sure. Although many people who are part of the disability community - whether its friends or family or professionals - they are all a little bit concerned. To resolve that concern…I think the paper straws will resolve the issue.”

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