Drawing straws: VPIRG is gambling away disabled Vermonters’ independence

By David Flemming

Not content to merely “ask” Vermonters to go without single-use plastic straws, VPIRG is telling our legislators that they should pass a proposal to ban these straws altogether to keep them out of landfills in 2019.

For some Vermonters, this ban would be environmental big-brother as usual, perhaps less intrusive than VPIRG’s success at banning cheap appliances that use too much energy. But for some of the 6 percent of Vermonters who already have difficulty caring for themselves, this ban would force them to decide between eating and drinking at home, or going without a drink at restaurants.

The straw seems like a simple thing. But it was not always so.

The son of a man who helped settle Ohio, Marvin Stone was sipping whiskey through a rye-straw one night in Washington DC during the 1880’s, but was put off by the grassy taste it left in his mouth. To remove this annoyance, “he wound paper around a pencil to make a thin tube, slid out the pencil from one end, and applied glue between the strips.” Stone commercialized his invention by funding machines to twist paper into a cylinder, which were then coated with a water-resistant paraffin wax. Little did he know, his invention would eventually lead to the creation of the single-use plastic straw, making the lives of millions of disabled individuals a little easier.

Take Jordan Carlson’s son, whose poor motor skills prevent him from drinking without a straw. While visiting a zoo, “we went to the snack bar and found out they had a ‘no straw’ policy.” (Doesn’t this sound similar to the pledge VPIRG has encouraged VT businesses to take)? She continues, “it was a hot day and he couldn’t drink.” The Carlsons were forced to leave the zoo early that day.

Carlson tries to remember to bring reusable straws from home with her, but “I’m human and sometimes I forget,” she explains. People with disabilities have to be much more conscious of what businesses and communities offer, Carlson says.

Certainly! While only about one in twenty Vermonters are disabled, Vermont should remain as inclusive as possible to our disabled neighbors.

The straw is a victory of capitalism for the disabled. As much as progressive folks like to discuss income inequality, the deepest gulf of inequality lies between the able-bodied individual and the disabled individual. This gulf has shrunk dramatically over the past century, due in large part to entrepreneurs discovering markets for their inventions that often become repurposed for those with disabilities. The straw is one of thousands of such inventions.

Stone, like many entrepreneurs, did not intend to improve the lives of disabled people worldwide. Nevertheless, their desire for wealth by keeping a fraction of sales from their inventions has made the lives of millions of the disabled more enjoyable. And the US has a proud history of capitalist inventors who have bridged the gap between the able-bodied and disabled.

Some of the more bold mobility-increasing inventions like Ford’s Model T were certainly not created with the disabled in mind. Regardless, the advent of affordable cars 100 years ago has made personalized care for the disabled and elderly far more easily accomplished today than if our past representatives had saddled us with a system of public transport that produced fewer CO2 emissions.

Ford did not invent the assembly line primarily out of the goodness of his heart. He saw an opportunity to enrich his own life, and enriched millions of people worldwide, because our institutions created the incentive for him to do so. Without Ford’s efforts, the disabled would put far more of a strain on our healthcare system. Stone’s straw may not be on par with Ford’s car, but we can still appreciate the contribution each have made to giving all us, most especially the disabled, the tools to improve our own lives.

We able-bodied people would be guilty of gross discrimination at eating establishments if we took away such an instrument to human dignity like the straw. The straw lends the most unfortunate of us a little more independence. Sure, we might create a little more trash than usual, but that’s small price to pay for human dignity, isn’t it?

VPIRG might protest: “we are only banning single-use plastic straws, we don’t want to ban paper straws!” But, disabled individuals generally take longer to eat and drink than the rest of us. Which means that paper straws tend to dissolve in water (imagine that!) and leave a bad taste in your mouth. Just think about what folks did before Mr. Stone’s inventions.

Not to mention, the children and the disabled may tear and swallow the much more fragile paper straws if parents aren’t careful. Safe straws are one thing parents and the disabled shouldn’t have to worry about a restaurant having on hand. Do we really want to jettison that safety standard just because it might keep a few straws out of landfills?

Even a bill allowing “straws upon request” might cause embarrassment for some disabled individuals. It could easily open restaurants to discrimination lawsuits if they get out of the rhythm of regularly ordering straws. I for one, would not want to explain to disabled customers why straws are out of stock.

At the moment, finding a way for all people with poor motor skills to drink out of a cup seems unattainable. While we wait for entrepreneurs to find a solution, we should let the disabled Vermont residents and visiting tourists have their straws without having to ask for one.

David Flemming is a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Adam Jones
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