It is a truth universally acknowledged that environmentalism faces many enormous barriers, some of which are fundamental aspects of modern society, while some of which are entirely avoidable. Discrimination against the disabled community in environmental motions most definitely falls into the latter category.
Recent environmental progress, such as plastic straw prohibitions, the shaming of ultra-packaged food and strict electric bike bans, has provoked substantial backlash from individuals with various disabilities, and rightfully so. While these ordinances might demonstrate great benefits for the environment, they have negative consequences for a portion of the population that must not be ignored.
Public discourse surrounding the conflict is typically exaggerated and over-aggressive. Some people argue that the environmental movement is completely clueless and intentionally discriminatory. Others have suggested that anyone who protests these new policies is lazy.
Accessibility is frequently labeled as wasteful. Sure, wrapping food neatly in plastic enhances the ease through which it can be obtained, transported or eaten. However, single-use plastic wrap is also a poor environmental choice as it ends up in a trash can before the user has even finished the meal.
The problem is, accommodations for disabilities are considered to be wasteful too. In Twitter feuds and other un-civilized debates — much like the uneducated bickering in freshmen seminars between students who haven’t done the required reading — many people have stated that disability necessitates excessive product consumption and leads to an inherently wasteful lifestyle. Others go so far as to suggest that in a fight for the environment, disabled people are simply inconvenient and do not need to be accommodated.
When environmental motions have no clear exemptions for disabled persons, they raise controversy and provoke negative response. But in reality, the movements themselves are sound and only require a little more work to be socially inclusive. Environmentalism does not deserve to be blamed for subjugating an entire demographic that has already largely ignored by mainstream society.
“The Last Straw” movement, an effort to reduce plastic waste by banning plastic straws, has accumulated substantial support, and even some success. Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban straws in 2018. Starbucks has made plans to do away with straws and other food chains are following suit.
Plastic straws are a perfect target — not too major so as to compromise people’s lives, but a significant source of plastic pollution nevertheless.
Or can straws actually compromise people’s lives? Cue the dramatic music.
Some people legitimately need them. Several disabilities make it impossible to drink without a plastic straw. That being said, most eager environmentalists will quickly challenge this statement by pointing out that there are alternative types of straws.
Unfortunately, paper and other biodegradable options disintegrate prematurely or are easily bitten through by individuals with limited jaw control. Silicone straws are not flexible, which is important for people with any mobile disability. Other straws pose serious safety risks. For instance, individuals with cerebral palsy can injure themselves by hitting a glass or metal straw. Still other reusable straws are hard to keep clean and sanitary.
Even when bans use exemptions, businesses don’t always comply, and people are left in-need and desperately straw-less in Seattle (think Tom Hanks from “Sleepless in Seattle” as an unhappy insomniac who also isn’t able to drink anything — doesn’t sound very fun).
The Seattle straw ban is supposed to allow for restaurants to give disposable plastic straws to customers who need them for medical reasons, but there isn’t widespread awareness of the provision. The commission that is supposed to advice Seattle’s city agencies on disability issues was not even consulted before the straws were initially banished. Various committee members reported asking over a dozen Seattle chain restaurants if they had plastic straws available for people who needed them and were told no, the straws were gone
The problem isn’t permanent, though. All that needs to happen is for laws to require businesses to keep a collection of straws on hand.
In the meantime, the straw ban and environmentalism at large face backlash from pro-straw parties, anti-environmentalists and anyone who takes pleasure in tearing something apart because it has flaws.
On social media, some people challenged claims that people with disabilities require plastic straws by pointing out that those kinds of people survived in a time before plastic straws. Actually, they aspirated liquid into their lungs, developed pneumonia and often died.
This controversy started in 2016 with a tweet of a picture of peeled oranges in plastic containers on a Whole Foods shelf saying “If only nature could find a way to cover these oranges so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them.” The tweet proceeded to gain publicity and Whole Foods apparently decided to remove the pre-peeled oranges from their inventory.
If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn't need to waste so much plastic on them. pic.twitter.com/00YECaHB4D
— Nathalie Gordon (@awlilnatty) March 3, 2016
This seems like a victory for environmentalists, right? Plastic packaging is one of the worst things for the environment, with 8 tons ending up in the ocean every year.
Except, there are people who do not possess the hand dexterity to peel oranges themselves. Pre-cut fruits and vegetables with additional packaging need to be available for individuals who cannot prepare such food safely.
Plastic is terrible, but the shaming of prepared foods is not the solution. It is possible to decrease the amount of ultra-packaged plastic-wrapped multi-housed items while not eliminating precut foods and vegetables as an option.
Electric bike bans
It’s an ongoing debate: Are people who “need” electric bikes just lazy?
Maybe some are, though many definitely aren’t. Couldn’t you say the same about anyone who just “needs” a ride? A car? A cup of coffee? People use the word “need” a lot, and sometimes it means an urgent requirement and other times just a mild desire for something.
The e-bike argument constitutes many misconceptions and uninformed judgements about other people. Whatever the percentage of lazy people, the bottom line is clear: there are some individuals with disabilities for which electric bikes make it possible to go places and experience things they wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
The Horizon, for example, is a type of electric bike that is a good fit for people with multiple sclerosis, ALS, paraplegia and quadriplegia, among other conditions.
Electric bikes have been banned off-road in Washington state, unless specifically allowed for by the managing jurisdiction, and are not allowed on most natural surfaces and many paved “bike” paths across the country. New York City only lifted its ban on e-bikes in April 2018 after a former crackdown. Bike motors capable of pushing you at a speed of over 20 mph remain forbidden.
However, bans on electric bikes definitely have merit. They can be speedy, dangerous and misused, especially when mingling with pedestrians and ordinary bicycles. But what if someone with a muscular degenerative disease wants to ride an e-bike on a bike trail in a National Forest? E-bikes are limited to off-highway vehicle routes in forest service areas, so they would be forced to bike alongside ATVs and Jeeps.
The solution is to establish more specific guidelines regarding bicycle rules and make sure to allow for exceptions, ultimately fostering a more tolerant, inclusive society.
Maybe electric bikes truly are insanely annoying, but an individual with limited mobility rolling along on an e-bike and appreciating stunning state park views is a lot less disturbing than a serious cyclist training for a race and swooshing blindly downhill, rudely running you over in the process.