The ‘Plastic Straw Ban’ Hurts People With Disabilities

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The ‘Plastic Straw Ban’ Hurts People With Disabilities

Kaelyn Buesing/Allison Reynolds

Brookie loves her dogs. She adores lip-syncing to Imagine Dragons and going off the diving board. She goes fishing. She has girls’ days. She cuts sunflowers with her mom. She goes to Cape Cod every summer and when she lost a tooth, her seven-year-old grin somehow became impossibly cuter. She loves to dance. Her mom says, “She will talk our ears off,” and “Brookie is truly one of the smartest, sassiest, happiest little girls I know.”

Brookie can also only drink out of a plastic straw.

You see, Brookie has spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. As her mom Allison Reynolds says, “This is the most severe form of CP. She is nonverbal [all that chatter comes through a talking device that tracks her eye movements]. She won’t talk. She won’t walk on her own. She won’t crawl on her own. She will [need] 24/7 physical care for the rest of her life.”

Brookie can only use plastic straws, and they feel incredibly lucky at that: many people with quadriplegia can’t manage that, and the inability to drink comes with a g-tube, which comes with a host of issues, from infection to severe reflux to more hospital and doctors’ visits.

Why plastic straws? Why does it have to be plastic straws? 

As Reynolds tells Scary Mommy, her daughter “needs to bite down … we have tried literally every other [alternative] and they don’t work … hard plastic she can’t bite down/ soft plastic [or] silicon she breaks [or] chews it … and forget metal.” Metal can break teeth, as parents of children with quadriplegia well know.

Allison Reynolds

Kalyn Buesing’s daughter Mary is in much the same position. Buesing tells Scary Mommy that Mary is “a typical 7 year old who has the most amazing smile that you just can’t help but smile too.” She loves to go to Chuck E. Cheese, play at the park (“with help from mom, of course”), shop at Target, go to Disneyland, and ride on airplanes.

“I help her slide and climb jungle gyms, while she begs for 1 more slide each time,” Buesing says. She loves whipped cream lattes, too — which she couldn’t drink without a plastic straw. Like Brookie, she has the same problems with the alternatives.

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Metal cracks teeth. It’s desperately important that the plastic straw’s flow, like Brookie’s straw flow, be restricted, so she doesn’t aspirate. She chews on silicon or can’t suck through them. She can’t bend her head to suck on a straight paper straw. Paper also just breaks apart. It’s gotta be flexible, it’s gotta be able to be restricted, and kids can’t chew on it. Hence: plastic straws, available everywhere. 

But not if the straw ban, now gaining steam, goes through. Starbucks announced in early July that it is eliminating all plastic straws, according to CNN. They “contribute to ocean pollution and pose a danger to marine life,” the article states. Malibu, CA; Seattle, WA; Davis and San Luis Obispo, CA;  Miami Beach and Fort Myers, FL have all banned the use of plastic straws in beverages, according to The New York Times. They “represent a small percentage of the plastic that’s produced and consumed.”

Diana Lofflin, founder of Strawfree.org, tells the Times, “Giving up plastic straws is a small step, and an easy thing for people to get started on. From there, we can move on to larger projects.” The #stopsucking hashtag has gained momentum in the past few months. Scotland plans to be rid of plastic straws by 2019, and Taiwan by 2030.

Bring your own straws, people argue. If you need them so badly, take them with you. But this isn’t always a viable option for parents of children with special needs, and it’s just “one more thing” they need to take with them. Reynolds said she already needs to bring a power chair and push chair in case the place is not wheelchair accessible; diapers, wipes, and a blanket because she’s not allowed to change Brookie on a changing table, but is forced to use the dirty floors of restrooms or her car; the eye gaze device that helps Brookie communicate; and ankle foot orthotics.

Buesing says she totes along “diapers, wipes, a change of clothes, her wheelchair, chewy tubes, medicine/oil bag, two iPads since one is for talking and one is for entertainment, a charger pack for those, a cooler bag with her high calorie protein drinks, sometimes we also bring a walker so she can choose to walk or ride.” And now, both moms are also expected to tote along plastic straws, too.

Try to remember all that stuff. Just try. In the maelstrom that is these women’s lives, which begin before morning coffee and go well into the evening, try to remember One. More. Thing.

Kahn Buesing

Because here’s the deal: Plastic straw alternatives, according to Quartz, don’t work with drinks over 40 degrees Celsius. Moreover, “bendy plastic straws were originally used as adaptive technology in hospitals…  In the late 1940s, inventor Joseph B. Friedman sold the disposable ‘Flex-Straw’ (or ‘personalized drinking tube’) as a tool to help reclined patients drink from a cup.”

They caught on. But plastic straws were originally adaptive technology for people with disabilities, which we are now removing on a flimsy principle of helping the environment.

It keeps going. Scientists have proven that more plastics recycling won’t solve the plastics problem, according to none other than Scientific American. The article blames not consumers and their plastic straws, but big beverage companies and other corporations for encouraging single-use, large items — such as bottles and bags — which they didn’t have to take back and clean to reuse again. They recommend, in one case, an opt-in policy on plastic straws. Like the grocery story, everyone’s asked, “Paper or plastic?” Everyone. And people who don’t need plastic shouldn’t take it. Period. People like Brookie and Mary should.

Because Brookie and Mary? They deserve to be like everyone else. Period. They deserve to be treated like everyone else in every single way, and that includes in their choice of the way they drink their beverages. They need plastic straws. Businesses should provide those straws. Moms should not have to tote them around. Mary’s mom Kalyn says it’s getting old “too fight so hard just to get our kids noticed … They take our parking spots, we can’t change our kids diapers in public, and now we won’t be able to let our kids drink in public without bringing our own straws.”

Preach it, sister.

Ask for an opt-in policy. Push against an outright ban. But don’t jump on the #stopsucking bandwagon. Because banning plastic straws sucks for Mary. It sucks for Brookie. It sucks for people like them: people with Tourette’s; people with Pica, who may actually eat paper straws; people with bleeding disorders. As one twitter user puts it:

Exactly. Pick on the corporations. And leave Mary and Brookie out of your battle against plastics. A plastic straw ban won’t help. Systemic change will.