Strawgate: The Ableism Behind Exclusionary Activism

I have a lot of fragmented memories like this one after being hospitalized for a large portion of my late teenage and young adult life. This was a result of sustaining a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) among multiple other internal and external injuries stemming from a very violent act inflicted upon me by a man I did not know, but who felt entitled to ownership of my existence. Fortunately, I survived. However, navigating life as a disabled person thereafter, in an inherently ableist society, often led me to question why. Why bother? This especially became a recurring thought in my mind whenever I faced mainstream issues or experiences that excluded or denied disabled people our humanity.

The latest reiteration of normalized ableist exclusion has been the bans and debate regarding single-use disposable plastic straws. Every time I come across it online, another one of these vivid memories from my life living in the hospital intensive care unit stirs up in my psyche. I remember in particular one of my friends from high school, Dini, sitting by my hospital bedside, feeding me baby food with a plastic straw that had a tiny spoon fashioned at the end of it. When I had graduated to receiving my sustenance through my mouth rather than through an IV, I had to start with liquids, ingested via regular plastic bendable straws. Eventually, baby food and other blended-up food items were fed to me by these special plastic spoon-straws, provided in many hospitals to their incapacitated patients. My jaw had been wired shut for about a total of six months, and plastic straws were the only way I could eat and take my meds.

Paper straws were of no use, especially for hot liquids — the paper would just disintegrate. Metal straws were not an option either, because they could lead to potentially serious burns in my already fragile mouth, face, and body from their hot content, not to mention that the metal could damage fresh surgical sites. But also, if I did not have the fine motor functions to eat or drink by myself at the time, having to clean and disinfect reusable metal straws was certainly out of the question. I tried every type of straw there was during that time period to find that only the bendy disposable plastic variety were of any use to me. This is likely the case with people suffering from ALS, dementia, stroke, seizures, or other kinds of disabilities and health issues that would require the regular use of them.

Those who want to ban plastic straws argue for these unusable alternatives or say that disabled people should provide our own straws — at our own expense and effort. That we are expected to do this in order to maintain some modicum of a normal life is only half of the issue with this recent rendition of strawgate.

The issue of plastic straws seems to regularly cycle in the mainstream, but a recent viral video of a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nostril furthered the impetus for strawgate 2018. It has now resulted in real life bans and never-ending ableist debates across developed cities all over the world from Vancouver to Seattle to London, regarding the impact of straws on the environment. In all of the debates and proposed or implemented policies thus far, most have failed to include the disabled community — those of us who depend on plastic straws to carry out basic functions of daily living.

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