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To the Legislators Who Banned Straws in Santa Barbara

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On July 17, 2018, the Santa Barbara City Council unanimously passed a bill prohibiting restaurants, bars, and other dining establishments from supplying consumers with plastic straws. In her open letter below, Mighty contributor and Santa Barbara native, Kelly Douglas, addresses local legislators, explains the deleterious impact Santa Barbara’s plastic straw ban has on people with disabilities and calls for legislative change.

Dear Santa Barbara Legislators,

The July 17 bill prohibiting Santa Barbara’s restaurants, bars, and food service establishments from providing customers with plastic straws and imposing fines on businesses that refuse to comply promotes environmental preservation at the cost of an oft-forgotten segment of the population — people with disabilities.  This highly rigid legislation directly prevents people with limited dexterity from fully enjoying dining establishments alongside their able-bodied peers, and in doing so, renders eateries inaccessible to people with a variety of disabilities.

Many people with disabilities affecting fine-motor skills require straws to drink independently, as the ability to bring cup to mouth requires significant coordination.  People with a variety of conditions, including cerebral palsy, strokes and global developmental delays may necessitate drinking straws as a hands-free alternative to drinking directly from a cup, but their viable alternatives to plastic straws are limited.

Although a variety of straws, from paper straws, to silicone straws, to stainless steel straws exist and can work for some people, for others they range from impractical to downright dangerous. Single-use plastic straws remain the most realistic option for many with health conditions. Paper straws disintegrate easily, so they may be impractical for those with mouth control issues. Metal straws are harmful for use in hot beverages, as they can easily burn the user. Plastic straws, by contrast, are durable without causing substantial health and wellness hazards, so they allow people with dexterity issues the ability to enjoy nearly any beverage, as long as they are available for those customers.

Banning plastic straws from eateries outright may appear to be an effective, consequence-free solution to the environmental crisis, but it negates the accessibility needs of people with disabilities.  If people with limited dexterity can physically enter a restaurant, but they cannot independently enjoy a morning coffee or a happy hour drink after a long workday, the establishment is not truly accessible.  Preventing restaurants from supplying customers with disabilities with plastic straws, expecting restaurants to demonstrate written proof of medical necessity and fining eateries that refuse to comply not only wholly restricts accessibility for numerous people with disabilities, but in establishing punitive measures for non-compliance, it also criminalizes equal access.

Seattle’s July 2018 plastic straw ban, by contrast, which restricts overall plastic straw use, but allows dining establishments to keep plastic straws on hand as an drinking alternative for customers who truly require them, perfectly exemplifies the core principle that should drive environmental preservation — intersectionality.  To be effective, environmental legislation should consider not just the needs of the fauna and flora, but it should also promote the general welfare of minority populations. True legal intersectionality requires that legislators consider the needs of constituents from diverse backgrounds and implement policy that reaches their overall goals without infringing on any population’s freedom.

Examining the existing plastic straw bill through the eyes of people with disabilities and adjusting Santa Barbara’s current, rigid straw legislation to more closely match Seattle’s more flexible, intersectional model will allow the Santa Barbara City Council to preserve both the environment and basic human dignity for people with disabilities. Altering the current bill to expect eateries to primarily provide non-plastic straw alternatives, but to also supply plastic straws for those who need it most will protect the environment, provide necessary accommodations for people with disabilities and promote equal access for all.

It’s time to bring disability issues to the forefront of legislation. It’s time to approach lawmaking with an inclusive, empathetic worldview.  It’s time to enact intersectional change, both in Santa Barbara and throughout the world.

Getty image by Alexander Novikov.

Originally published: July 24, 2018
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