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Robyn M. Powell -Principal of Robyn Powell Consulting, LLC, a disability law and policy consulting firm. As a woman with disability, she dedicated her career to advancing the rights of people with disabilities. Powell is the author of the article: ‘I Need Plastic Straws to Drink: I Also Wanna Save the Environment
Jay Ruderman: The question we hope to get to the bottom of is this: why is banning straws so controversial?
Voice Over: [Music plays] All Inclusive: a podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman: Welcome to All Inclusive. I’m your host, Jay Ruderman, and on today’s show we will address one of the most hotly debated topics across the world. From Scotland to Taiwan, environmentalists are fighting to ban single-use plastic straws in countries around the world to protect the environment. In the United States alone, cities like Seattle and New York City have banned plastic straws. States including California, New Jersey, Washington, Florida and Hawaii are considering the ban as we speak. The question we hope to get to the bottom of is this: why is banning straws so controversial?
Jay Ruderman: Today I’d like to welcome our guest to this podcast. She’s an attorney, a PhD candidate for social policy and management at Brandeis University, a writer, who wrote the first major article on the straw ban, ‘I Need Plastic Straws to Drink: I Also Wanna Save the Environment.’ Welcome Robyn Powell, and thank you for joining me today.
Robyn Powell: Thank you for having me.
Jay Ruderman: So our environment is in dire straights, plastics are a big part of the environmental crisis, and it seems like an easy fix to say, “Okay, plastic straws are a problem.” Why is it an issue? What concerns you about the ban on plastic straws?
Robyn Powell: So first of all, I completely agree. We need to give much more attention to our environment. It is definitely long overdue. But as a woman with a disability who depends on straws to drink, I am very concerned about the straw bans. The straw ban has really demonstrated the extent to which people with disabilities are often excluded from conversations that directly impact them.
Robyn Powell: Drinking is something that you need to do in order to live, and in order for me to be able to drink, I actually need to have a straw. And that is what is concerning to me right now. Myself and most people with disabilities, we rely on straws, it’s an accommodation when you’re out in public, I see it as. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity. And again, I agree that we need to be addressing the waste of plastic. I think there are many ways that we can be doing so without taking away straws from people with disabilities.
Jay Ruderman: So let’s break this down a little bit. First of all, some of the solutions that have been offered: paper straws, metal straws, a person with a disability can carry their own straws. Why are these not ideal solutions? And maybe you could talk a little bit about your own personal experience. Why is a straw… Not to get too personal, but why is a plastic straw so important to you?
Robyn Powell: Absolutely. So personally, I have arthrogryposis, which is a physical disability that affects my muscles and joints. I have limited use of my hands and legs, and I use a power wheelchair. I am physically unable to pick up a cup. So for me this, again, is really a personal issue. Now you’ve mentioned there are a number of alternatives, and some of them are paper straws and the metal straws. And for me, personally, both of those straws actually would work for me. I actually use those personally at my house. But what the issue is, is those don’t work for a lot of people with disabilities.
Robyn Powell: Paper straws dissolve very quickly, which becomes a choking hazard. You also can’t use them with hot beverages, so I can’t use them if I have a hot beverage. The metal straws are really problematic for people who have Parkinson’s or other involuntary movements. If they clench down while they’re drinking on a metal straw, they’re going to break a tooth, to be frank. So that is why it’s such an issue.
Robyn Powell: And then carrying straws around has been proposed. And that comes with its own slew of problems. First of all, we’re putting the onus on people with disabilities to now provide their own accommodations, which I see as fundamentally wrong, if not also illegal. We wouldn’t as a non-disabled person to bring their own silverware, is that something we’re gonna start doing next?
Robyn Powell: Not only is this putting the onus on you have to bring your own straw, but it overlooks the fact that people with disabilities are historically living below poverty level, so now we’re asking them to go out and purchase these reusable straws, which are more expensive than plastic straws. We’re also assuming, then, that people with disabilities will be able to carry their own straws. They’ll have to go home and have someone who can help them clean the straws. We’re just putting all these responsibilities on people with disabilities just to be able to drink, and I just think that that is unacceptable.
Robyn Powell: I agree, again, we need to be coming up with an alternative. I’m not at all disputing that. What I think is that we need to be working with the disability community and the environmental rights groups to try to come up with a solution that works for everyone. And just doing a flat out ban without engaging with the disability community is going to be harmful.
Jay Ruderman: So has that not happened, have these major corporations, municipalities, states who’ve taken this action, have they not consulted with the disability community?
Robyn Powell: Not until recently. Now that there’s been a lot more media attention I do see some engagement occurring. But it’s still disability rights activists having to push their way into the conversation, which is so common with so many things in this world. It was an afterthought. It was these unintended consequences that people with disabilities would be harmed. I’m really not sure that it was ever on anyone’s radar. I think that was a glaring omission probably. So at this point, people with disabilities are tying to push their way to the table. Again, it’s not that we are at all against the environment. We need the environment just like everyone else, but we also need to be able to drink, and that’s where I think the solution really is for disability rights activists and manufacturers to work together to come up with a solution that will work for all people that are affected by straw bans. And really the people that use straws the most. Those that rely on straws.
Jay Ruderman: So any examples of that? Anything that has popped up over the last few weeks where companies or municipalities have come to the disability community saying, “Let’s sit down and work on this?”
Robyn Powell: So I’m not aware necessarily of anything to that level. I think that what a lot of companies such as Starbucks have come out and said is, “Oh no, we’re still going to have straws available, you’re gonna just need to ask if you need one,” and that on itself is a great idea, I think, but I’m curious and slightly concerned about how it’s implemented. There is Starbucks all over across the country, and across the world, so I’m concerned about how all Starbucks locations are going to implement this and carry it out.
Robyn Powell: I could go into one Starbucks and I ask for a straw, and I get a very lovely response and a straw handed to me. I go to another Starbucks and I’m worried that I’m gonna get some questioning. “Do you really need a straw?” I don’t need to feel bad about myself, and I feel like there are people out there that are getting shamed at this point for needing straws, and I think that that’s what my concern is. So if we can come up with some sort of on-demand system where it really is truly on-demand, no questions asked, then I think that that would be an alternative for now.
Jay Ruderman: So we’ve had many cases with airlines where people have said to people with disabilities who are entering the process of getting on an airline, “Prove to me that you have a disability, what is your disability.” So is that your concern, like if you walk into a Starbucks or any other location that you may be encountered with someone, or people with disabilities may be encountered, and said, “Prove to me why you need a straw.”
Robyn Powell: So yeah, that’s my concern. I think that too often people with disabilities are forced to prove that they have a disability. I think that that is really problematic. Myself, I have a very physical and visible disability, so I’m not concerned that I would encounter any of that, although I have been shamed even by some people I know personally, so I could see it as something. “Robyn, why can’t you just drink with a reusable straw? Really, is this this big of a deal? Why are you so upset?” And these are people that I know personally, so, if people I know personally have some concerns or some negative feelings towards this, I worry that folks that have no connection to people with disabilities will also feel very strongly.
Jay Ruderman: So we’re trying to really take two different interest groups that are not at odds and focus on the rights of people with disabilities to be able to be included and part of society and to be able to go into an establishment and enjoy a drink and also the environmental who’s saying this is the worst of the worst in terms of affecting the environment and it needs to be done away with. So, are you aware of any links between the disability community and environmental groups that are trying to work this out, or are we just sorta like talking past each other?
Robyn Powell: I think that because of all the attention that’s gotten to this issue in the past month or two, there are starting to become some linkages between the groups. I think that historically they haven’t necessarily worked together pretty clearly on this issue, so I do see a lot of opportunities at this point. I know that personally, I have been reached out by a few groups since writing this article who have expressed an interest in really wanting to work with the disability rights community and come up with an alternative solution. I don’t think that any of this was done with any sort of malice. I just honestly think that this was an oversight, and I think that at this point, we really need to just try to correct it, again because this has many unintended consequences that just weren’t considered.
Jay Ruderman: And maybe to talk a little bit about the landmark civil rights legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the need for accommodations and public places being able to-the onus on them to provide accommodations. So you mentioned at the beginning as people may say, “Why don’t you carry some straws with you, and then you buy your drink and you can use your own straw?” Why is that not a great solution?
Robyn Powell: Right so the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 so we’re almost approaching the 30th anniversary at this point. Part of the ADA is that public accommodations have to provide reasonable accommodations, so that’s things like restaurants and hotels and movie theaters and sporting events-anything that’s really open to the public does need to provide a reasonable accommodation. I would argue that straws are a reasonable accommodation.
Robyn Powell: The other part of the ADA that’s important to remember is when the ADA Amendments Act was passed in 2008. The focus was really to shift it away from people with disabilities having to prove that they have a disability. We should really believe it. If someone requests an accommodation, of if they say that there’s been any sort of discrimination, we shouldn’t focus our attention on, “Well does this person actually have a disability” but instead, “Is there an accommodation needed” or “Was there discrimination happening?” So again, I think this may violate both the spirit of the law and possibly the letter of the law.
Jay Ruderman: Okay, so this is sort of bubbling up and over the summer it’s become a hot topic because of companies like Starbucks and major municipalities and states taking action. Has the government gotten involved at all?
Robyn Powell: I don’t know that anyone has taken that much of a step back. I do know that some cities have gone and said, “You know, this is not going to affect people with disabilities. Of course, straws should still be available for people with disabilities.” And again, that just goes to my concern: are they really going to be available and how do we ensure that they are actually available?
Jay Ruderman: So let’s back up a little bit about the issue of segregation. People with disabilities are roughly 20% of our society and one of the largest minority groups in our country and around the world, but yet, this society tends to be very fractured. People come in at it from different angles, so is that an issue? Do you see a lack of unification on the disability community hindering this push to have equal access to drinks in public places?
Robyn Powell: Well you know, you mentioned that people with disabilities are one of the largest minorities and actually, last week the CDC came out with new numbers that said now it’s 1 in 4 people in the United States have a disability so we’re a growing group, it seems. Within the disability community, there of course are a variety of different experiences and needs, and so I do think that we in the disability community need to come together more on this issue. It doesn’t affect one type of disability. People with neurological disabilities are affected by straw bans, physical disabilities, people with developmental disabilities are affected. It really does cut across a lot of disability groups, and I think that we as a community really need to unite on this issue.
Robyn Powell: I think that it speaks to a larger issue, the fact that this wasn’t considered when plastic bans were put in place. People with disabilities, we exist in substantial numbers, and yet, I don’t think it was considered at all. I find that pretty ironic because people with disabilities, I assume, are the biggest consumers of plastic straws. I think that just goes to the fact that society continues to really overlook the disability community despite us existing in large numbers.
Jay Ruderman: So, how do you work to become not enemy number one to the environmental community? I mean, what’s the strategy on that?
Robyn Powell: Well, I personally think that what we need to do first of all, and I said that in the title of my article, I need plastic straws to drink but I also wanna save the environment and that completely true for myself and I assume most people with disabilities. I’m very much into protecting the environment. Personally, I don’t use plastic bags and I go and recycle everything I can; I’m very into it. I think that what we need to do is realize this is not people with disabilities being against the environment, and also it’s not environmental rights groups being against people with disabilities. Once we can get through that and realize it’s not this false dichotomy, I think then we can actually come up with a solution. It doesn’t have to be either/or, and I think that that is where we seem to be stuck, in some ways. In some ways it feels like disability rights is being pitted against environmental rights, and this is something that is happened historically: social justice is always being pitted against environmental justice, and can they be connected, and can you get both social justice and environmental justice? I think the answer is yes. I think we just need to be inclusive of both perspectives.
Jay Ruderman: Right. I do think that there’s a solution here, and with corporations and governments that can work these issues out, one of the issues that I’m concerned about is that the disability community is often seen as a community that is deserving of charity and not of rights. That’s a stigma that’s really hard to break through. Where a lot of people historically see people with disabilities as like, “Oh, well we have to take care of them because they’re less fortunate” instead of “They’re human beings who’re part of our society who need accommodations in order to be fully integrated into part of our society.” So, along with the fight to have your ability or people with disabilities ability to have access to straws, is there an overall issue here that you’re combating against?
Robyn Powell: No, you’re absolutely right. So, historically, we have seen people with disabilities as deserving of charity and that has really led to this really unfortunate view of people with disabilities, honestly. I think that people don’t see the ADA difference as a civil right, but more as a charitable thing, you know, “Oh, we need to make the buildings accessible so those poor people with disabilities can come into our business” and not, “Oh! If we make our business accessible, then we’ll get more business.” How we shift that conversation is what really needs to happen at this point. I think that the problem is disability is seen as a medical perspective instead of a social construct and I think that if we can see this as another marginalized community we can really start to shift the conversation and make it more about civil rights. That’s what it is. Disability rights are civil rights, at the end of the day. How we get there is really changing how we perceive disability. We can pass as many laws as we want but until we can change that conversation and those perceptions, this is gonna continue to happen.
Jay Ruderman: So how do you see, if you go look into your crystal ball, how is this going to develop? I mean, since you wrote this article, which is sort of the first one out there, have you been contacted by companies and municipalities and governments that said, “What can we do better?” Are you becoming an expert on this issue, or is it more like, “Okay, well I said what I had to say, which was important, and it was sort of a drop in the bucket?”
Robyn Powell: Yeah, no, so I did write one of the first articles and I’ve been thrilled to see that there’ve been dozens since then. I think that’s great that we’re getting out there and really increasing awareness of these issues. I have heard from some plastic straw companies who have said “We’re working on making alternatives, will you try this one out?” I know that advocates are working with their local municipalities on this issue. I know that folks out in California are doing a lot of work now on this issue because there are a number of straw bans being considered in cities across California, and that’s where the civil rights movement began, so I think that’s important that people with disabilities out there get really involved. I think that there is a growing awareness of this, and I think that that is what is necessary.
Robyn Powell: There’s still a need for more people to understand these issues, I mean, when I first wrote the article I was emailed by all kinds of people, and tweets saying, “You don’t get it” or “Why don’t you use reusable straws” and I said, “Did you read the article” or “We can’t worry about this, we have to worry about the environment.” Again, I think that it doesn’t have to be an either/or. I think that that is where the issue lies. This is not people with disabilities being against the environment, and it’s just, how can we do that by also making sure that we have our ability to live in the community? That involves needing to be able to drink.
Jay Ruderman: So what’s your closing sort of argument to someone who says, “Listen, I really care about the environment. Our world is being inundated by trash and plastic that doesn’t break down, that’s gonna be in landfills, and is gonna destroy our environment. You’re proposing a solution that sort of doesn’t help us reach that goal immediately.” How do you interact with people who just don’t implicitly get your message, at this point?
Robyn Powell: Right now I think that we have two ways we should be approaching this. First, we need to look at how we can implement appropriately on-demand of straws, so that if I go to a business, I ask for a straw, it’s given to me, no questions asked. That doesn’t mean that every person gets a straw, but if they ask for one, they get one. That will absolutely decrease the use of straws. Secondly, manufacturers, environmental right groups and disability rights activists really need to get together and try to come up with an alternative solution that will work for all people. I am certain that there is a solution out there. I don’t see why there wouldn’t be.
Robyn Powell: The other thing I just wanna point out is: straws aren’t great for the environment, and that is absolutely true, but research has shown that straw bans aren’t necessarily that effective. I recently read a study that showed that plastic bag bans are far more effective at protecting the environment, so why are we so focused on these straws when there are so many other ways we can be working on this issue? I don’t think that it has to necessarily be straws, straws, straws. While I agree that we need to be thinking about that, we should also be thinking about ways we can reduce our use of plastic, cause we use plastic everyday for far too many things. I think we can be reducing it.
Jay Ruderman: Well it may have to do with the fact there are major companies who are serving beverages all over the country and all over the world who may have seen this as a quick fix, as a way to do their part to make the environment more healthy. As you said earlier, it was probably an oversight, that they probably didn’t really consult with the disability community. One of the things that I’m concerned about is fractionalization of the disability community is that we’re not all sort of together saying the same thing at the same time with a powerful voice, and a company may look at it and say, “Okay well there’s a dozen different people saying the same things.” Has there been any movement to bring the disability community together on this issue and to release one statement that sort of encompasses many different disability organizations?
Robyn Powell: I think that that is something that is needed, but I’m not aware that there has been any sort of concerted effort toward that at this point. I think that the arguments are pretty consistent. I think we’re all kind of saying the same arguments but we’re not saying them from the same voice and I think that is an issue that needs to be addressed, and there needs to be some unification around the issue, I agree. It’s absolutely something that’s overdue at this point.
Jay Ruderman: Well I’m very impressed by the fact that the disability community has jumped on this very quickly. It made it an issue in the press and gotten the attention of companies, municipalities and gotten them to rethink, and I think if that messaging and advocacy is consistent, I think it will have real results. So, I commend you for what you’re doing because I think advocacy is the way to influence society and move it forward, so, Robyn, I appreciate your time and your scholarship and your advocacy and your life’s work in trying to make our society better for people with disabilities and more inclusive, and at the same time, being cognizant of issues of environmental rights, so, I really see you as a leader and I wanna really appreciate you for joining us today on All Inclusive. Thank you for your input; it was really helpful.
Robyn Powell: Thank you for having me.
Voice Over2: [Music plays] All-Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All-Inclusive on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts, or to learn more, go to rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive.
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