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The Ableism of Environmental Protection

Reducing pollution but sadly also the rights of people with disabilities

Reducing pollution but sadly also the rights of people with disabilities

When I was preparing this post, our user odyssita happened to start a forum discussion about ableism: discrimination against people with disabilities. In the post, she shared mainly her experience with some doctors who seem to have overlooked and denied her challenges and needs as a person with disabilities.

Situations like this are very disappointing to patients with disabilities as doctors nowadays are supposed to comment on and offer advice to patients’ needs in a sensitive and objective way. Odyssita questioned in her post if some of her doctors are influenced by the distorted presentation of people with disabilities in the media. To discuss further, I would like to talk about sea turtles.

Legislation against plastic pollution

Not long ago, a video of a sea turtle with a stream of blood draining from its nostril was again virally shared on social media. In the video, researchers were working to extract a plastic straw from the turtle’s nostril. This video was first used by the Plastic Pollution Coalition some years ago for their movement to stop single-use plastic. Like many people, I was deeply distressed by the video. It has prompted me to reflect on my habit of plastic use.

Environmental campaigns tend to overlook people with disabilities. (Source:

Recently, more governments and restaurants have decided to take action to tackle this kind of pollution: banning plastic straws and single-use plastic with legislation – to save the sea turtles and our environment. These bans give rise to environmental campaigns like #TheFinalStraw which try to further encourage people to refuse single-use plastic like plastic straws.

However, more and more people with disabilities have spoken out about such bans and campaigns which have ignored not only their rights but also their existence. Shona Louise is among one of them.

The ableist FAQs about plastic straws

Some months ago, Shona, a writer and disability activist, wrote an article on her blog about the plastic straw ban and how it harms disabled people. It was a response to the criticism against people with disabilities who had expressed their disapproval of the plastic straw ban.

To help people understand why plastic straws are so important to people with disabilities, Shona first talked about the history of the bendy plastic straw. Invented in 1937, bendy plastic straw is considered as an early example of a universal design: a design which can be accessed and used to the greatest extent possible by people of all ages and abilities. Bendy plastic straws were initially used in hospitals as its flexible design made drinking much easier and safer for patients who were unable to drink from cups due to medical complications. If you wonder what happened to these people before the invention of plastic straws, many would die.

Many people think situations are different now with alternatives like metal, glass and silicone straws. Can’t people in need just use these alternatives, which are more environmentally friendly? The answer is both yes and no as summarized by this chart shared by Shona. It explains why the different alternatives available are not better options for many people with disabilities.


Then, there is this common argument: “Can’t you just bring your own straws? Don’t you care about the planet? Try harder!” Such comments are hardly unintentional ignorance to the needs of the disabled but an act of ableism. Here two disability activists tell you why:

Alice Wong, who has founded the Disability Visibility Project and has a spinal muscular atrophy, shared her opinion on Eater, a US food news and dining guides website:

“People have told me to bring my own reusable straws without thinking about the extra work that entails. Why would a disabled customer have to bring something in order to drink while non-disabled people have the convenience and ability to use what is provided for free? This is neither just, equitable, nor hospitable.”

Karin Hitselberger, a freelance writer with cerebral palsy obtaining a Master’s degree in disability studies, wrote on the Washington Post:

“Access is about the quality of life, and being able to have the same experiences and opportunities as a nondisabled person, with some adaptations.”

She also wrote on Rooted in Rights, a website to challenge stigma and redefine narratives around disability, mental health and chronic illness:

Products like this often stir ableism. (Source:

“… nearly 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a law that guarantees equal access and civil rights for disabled people. We still expect disabled people to learn to fit into the nondisabled world, instead of coming up with better solutions for everyone.”

Inclusiveness of environmental protection

Another ableist example is the debate on pre-prepared food. Photos of pre-prepared food like a peeled orange sold in a plastic box are time to time shared on social media with sarcastic commentary.

Due to that, people with disabilities who rely on these products are often labelled as being lazy and culprits of plastic pollution. There’s hardly a time that they don’t have to explain how time consuming and potentially dangerous it is for people with limited mobility to prepare food. Little do people know that these “sinful” pre-prepared foods offer more choices to people with disabilities and also allows them to live a more independent life.

In the following video, a disability activist, a marine conservation biologist and chief officers of environmental associations come together to discuss the recent straw bans and why it is important to include people with disabilities in conversations on sustainability and environmental campaigns.

Likewise, as pointed out on Huffpost by Robyn Powell, a disabled attorney, scholar and writer:

“People with disabilities are forced on a daily basis to find creative solutions so we can function in an environment not built for us. And we know our needs better than anyone else. It’s critical that straw manufacturers engage with the disability community to explore new, environmentally friendly straws that meet the needs of those who need them the most: people with disabilities.”

Saving the planet does not have to be mutually exclusive with the rights of people with disabilities. Their needs matter just as much as sea turtles and everyone else.

What’s your experience with ableism in your daily life? How do you deal with it?

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