The final straw –

I don’t want to be writing about straws. I’m sick of talking about them. But we (disabled people) have been telling you (non-disabled people) that plastic straws are essential for some people for so long now.

But you weren’t listening. You would suggest alternatives as if we had not thought of them before. Listen, disabled people are the most resourceful people you will ever meet. We can turn a tool for one thing into something that opens a door or turns a lock or grabs our walking stick without even thinking about it. This is because we have to; the world is inaccessible and we use what we have to make it as accessible as possible.

So we use straws to help us drink. Not me, my impairments don’t affect me in that way. But plenty of disabled people use them and many need them to be plastic. Paper straws can disintegrate and cause a choking hazard. Glass straws are frankly terrifying and if you bite down such as during a seizure, I dread to think what kind of injuries you can experience. Pasta straws briefly seemed like a good idea but they can’t be positioned in the way somebody needs them to be to be useful. Same with silicone, and bamboo.

Someone even made a chart. It shows the various alternatives to plastic straws and why, for certain disabled people, they are not the solution that they might initially seem to be.

Plus, we already carry a lot of equipment around with us. A reusable straw might not seem like much of an additional burden, but adding it onto the 87 other bits of crap we have to take with us everywhere we go and it is indeed burdensome. And if we forget it? If they’re outlawed to appease the masses, we can’t have a drink. Imagine being stuck at work in this weather with no way to consume water (or, more importantly, TEA) for 8 hours.

So we’ve been saying this for a year. The whataboutery is astounding and we really want people to trust our expertise, which we have gained through our own lived experience and the knowledge of those around us. We said that plastic straws were essential. We said that reusable straws could be dangerous. We even said they could kill, and people accused us of exaggeration.

I wish we had been exaggerating. I wish we had been wrong.

But last December, Elena Struthers-Gardner, a disabled woman of 60, collapsed while carrying a mason jar that had a metal straw through the lid. The straw pierced her brain through her eye. Her wife, Mandy Struthers-Gardner, found her and called an ambulance but Elena died the next day. A former jockey, Elena had had periodic collapses following a riding injury in her youth.

Mandy went on to say, “I just feel that in the hands of mobility challenged people like Elena, or children, or even able-bodied people losing their footing, these things are so long and very strong. […] Even if they don’t end a life they can be very dangerous.”

The coroner at her inquest this week said, “Clearly great care should be taken when using these metal straws […] There is no give in them at all. If someone does fall on one and it’s pointed in the wrong direction, serious injury can occur […] It seems the main problem here is if the lid hadn’t been in place the straw would have moved away.”

Nobody is saying that the plight that befell Elena Struthers-Gardner is going to happen all the time. It may not ever happen again in quite the same form. But the risk is there, and the lack of give in such a sturdy material means that, if it is aimed at your face and you’re falling towards it, there is very little that you can do. A plastic straw would collapse. A metal straw will stay exactly where it is when it is in a particular position due to a lid or cover holding it in place.

Regardless of the very apparent dangers to people who need plastic straws, they are to be banned in the UK from next April. Former drug user and Environment Minister Michael Gove said “Urgent and decisive action is needed to tackle plastic pollution and protect our environment. These items are often used for just a few minutes but take hundreds of years to break down, ending up in our seas and oceans and harming precious marine life.”

This is true, but straws account for 0.03% of ocean plastic. Let’s look at discarded fishing nets, which account for almost half of it. Let’s look at how we dispose of plastics so they don’t end up floating in the sea. Let’s look at the massive corporations who could change the future of the oceans in a matter of days if they put their minds to it. Let’s not put disabled people in danger for the sake of a cute soundbite and a policy that will affect them so disproportionately.

Photo: Mark Pazolli