“The perspective of people with disabilities may or may not be different, but we are members of the world. We are members of society. Why wouldn’t you include us?”

Christine Figgener’s unforgettable video from 2015 shows a sea turtle getting a plastic straw removed from deep inside its nostril. More than 41 million people have watched this heartbreaking video, which helped to launch bans on plastic straws in countries around the world. Most people agree that such bans are a good thing—and long overdue. But one group was notably absent from discussions around implementing the bans: people with disabilities.

Plastic straws

According to Pam Horton, chair of the board of directors for Disability Alliance BC, “People didn’t realize the impact of a straw.” Some people with physical disabilities, including Horton herself, require a straw in order to drink anything

To comply with plastic straw bans, many restaurants and coffee shops have removed straws entirely or switched to flimsy paper alternatives that get soggy rapidly and must be replaced repeatedly. The onus has been placed on individuals to bring their own reusable straws. Stainless steel ones are often expensive to purchase and difficult to clean, especially for individuals with mobility issues. Glass straws are similarly pricey and challenging to wash, plus they can break if dropped. An improperly washed reusable straw can collect bacteria and become dangerous to an individual with an autoimmune disorder.

In addition, stainless steel or glass straws can be too hard and inflexible for individuals who have difficultly controlling their mouth movements, while paper straws can be too soft and pliable and disintegrate quickly, becoming a choking hazard. Some eateries do keep plastic straws on hand but don’t make them readily available, forcing people with disabilities to go through the humiliating experience of explaining why, exactly, they require a plastic straw before receiving one. Public shaming is all too common.

The fact that individuals with disabilities weren’t consulted about most straw bans points to the widespread nature of ableism in the environmental movement and in society at large. Able-bodied people often disregard, marginalize or neglect to even consider how seemingly small changes might affect anyone with a disability.

Spoon theory

Almost two decades ago, Christine Miserandino developed the spoon theory to illustrate how much energy it takes every day for her to live with lupus. Her analogy has been widely adopted to explain what it’s like to live with any chronic illness or disability.

Miserandino was eating dinner in a restaurant with a close friend who asked about the day-to-day reality of living with lupus. Instead of brushing off or minimizing the question, Miserandino decided to answer it honestly. She gathered up a handful of spoons and handed them to her friend, explaining that a person with a disability starts each day with a limited number of “spoons” (energy) and must make choices that a person without a disability never even thinks about. She then got her friend to list off typical daily tasks, and for each one Miserandino took back a spoon. She explained that she always needs to be careful to plan out her day’s activities, because once a day’s spoons are gone, they’re gone. In contrast, a person without a disability has a seemingly endless supply of spoons.

Often, well-intentioned people in the environmental movement lobby for changes that would help the planet but rapidly deplete the spoons for individuals with disabilities. Difficulties arise when individuals with disabilities are not consulted about these proposed changes.

“Convenience” products

No one would argue that disposable plates and cutlery are good for the environment, but it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which a person with a disability has just one “spoon” left by the end of the day—enough to cook and eat dinner, perhaps, but not enough to clean up afterwards. And, for a person with limited hand dexterity or the inability to stand for very long, washing dirty dishes might be extremely difficult.

Chopped vegetables, peeled fruit and prepared meals, all presented in shiny plastic containers at the grocery store, can at first glace seem wasteful and self-indulgent. But for some individuals with disabilities, these items can make a world of difference in their ability to consume fresh, healthy food.

Disposable wipes, although harmful to the environment, can be similarly empowering. Wipes can allow some individuals with disabilities to take control of their personal hygiene, since showering can be exhausting (using up spoons) or even dangerous, increasing the risk of falls and other injuries.

Disposable menstrual products are likewise bad for the planet, but reusable ones can be challenging to clean and prohibitively expensive to purchase. Plus, a person who lacks fine motor skills may find a device such as a reusable menstrual cup impossible to use.

Labelling all single-use, disposable products as convenience items mischaracterizes how important some of these products can be to the health and well-being of individuals with disabilities. Banning such items in the name of the environmental movement can drastically harm some people’s lives.

Economic realities

People with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 61.8 percent of people without a disability were employed in the United States in 2020, compared to just 17.9 percent of people with a disability. People with disabilities tend to work fewer days per year, earn lower incomes overall and experience higher rates of poverty. This already dire situation has only been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, accessible housing and medical care are extremely expensive, especially in countries such as the United States where medical insurance coverage is tied to full-time employment.

This means that people with disabilities often face the twin challenges of fewer “spoons” and less money. Environmentally friendly choices are frequently more expensive. Compare the price of cleanser from the dollar store versus the cost of eco-friendly cleanser from the specialty boutique. Compare the price of disposable wipes versus the cost of a homecare worker to help with daily bathing. Compare the price of disposable plates and cutlery versus the cost of a daily cleaning service—or the cost of living in a wheelchair-accessible apartment with a dishwasher and low cupboards.

A more inclusive future

The future of the environmental movement lies in a more inclusive and intersectional approach to a broad range of issues. It’s unhelpful and, frankly, just plain wrong to assume that a person using a plastic straw or a disposable wet wipe doesn’t care about the environment. Invisible disabilities abound, along with visible but misunderstood disabilities. A more inclusive approach is to assume that we’re all doing our best with the “spoons” and the money available to us. According to Pam Horton, “Some of us are visible, some of us are invisible with our disability—it’s a matter of being inclusive.”

Every movement is made stronger by having diverse opinions and viewpoints considered at every step along the way. If the leaders of the environmental movement can stop viewing problems and solutions from a strictly ableist perspective, then we will avoid taking actions in the future (such as banning plastic straws) without considering and consulting those who will be affected by the changes. A more intersectional approach will also lead the way to a brighter future in which unequal access to healthcare and employment for people with disabilities is tackled in conjunction with environmental issues.

As Horton says, “The perspective of people with disabilities may or may not be different, but we are members of the world. We are members of society. Why wouldn’t you include us?”