Disability access and ocean conservation: Stronger together

(Clic aquí para leer en español)

Last year, the Aquarium called on California legislators to pass the Straws On Request billAs that law takes effect—and Monterey Bay communities adopt new local laws to cut back on single-use plastic—we’re working with our colleagues in the Disability community to ensure that anyone who needs a plastic straw can still access one.

In today’s guest post, Allie Cannington of the Disability Organizing (DO) Network discusses the results of a new study assessing the suitability of alternatives to plastic single-use straws for people who need them. DOnetwork is a program of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, funded through the Department of Rehabilitation and State Independent Living Council.

As of January 1, 2019, full-service restaurants in California may only provide straws when customers ask for them. At the same time, some cities and counties across the United States are passing local laws restricting straws and other single-use plastic materials.

At first glance, straw bans—intended to slow the rate of plastic pollution, particularly in our ocean—may seem beneficial for everyone. And yet, they can also threaten the independence of many people with disabilities.

Straw study_Russell
Russell Rawlings, left, tests a reusable stainless steel straw with a silicone tip as part of the Disability Organizing Network’s study.

Russell Rawlings, a Disabled advocate from Sacramento, reminds us that straws are an assistive technology tool. The AT Industry Association defines assistive technology as “any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.” Other well-known examples of assistive technology include wheelchairs, hearing aids and speech-to-text technology.

Hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities rely on straws as assistive technology every day. Historically and to this day, single-use plastic straws have provided people with disabilities access to independence, community integration and public life.

“Bottom line, straws enable me to access hydration with dignity,” Russell says. “Would it be possible to hydrate without them? Only if I had assistance. Do I feel the same level of dignity in a public setting without them? Absolutely not.”

Alternative straws: One type does not fit all

 How do we stop producing so much plastic straw waste, while also ensuring critical access for people with disabilities? California’s Disability Organizing Network, Central Coast Center for Independent Living and the Monterey Bay Aquarium came together to seek effective solutions.

With the state’s new Straws On Request law now in effect—and as more restaurants, cafes and eateries switch to non-plastic straws—we wanted to know whether alternative straws work for people with disabilities.

With support of the Aquarium’s culinary partner, SSA, and of independent living centers across California, the Disability Organizing Network conducted the most comprehensive study on Disabled people’s experiences with straws made from materials other than single-use, petroleum-based plastic. Read the full report here.

Alt straw study results
The most highly recommended alternative straws in the Disability Organizing Network’s study are lightweight, flexible and durable at different temperatures.

From participants in the alternative-straw study, we learned:

  • People with disabilities who need straws to access food and/or beverages have nuanced and diverse needs. They are always the experts on their own experiences.
  • People with disabilities want to find ways to reduce waste and protect the environment.
  • People with disabilities seek straws that are flexible, lightweight, durable enough for reuse, and suitable for drinks of different temperatures.
  • Compostable paper straws do not work for most people with disabilities.
  • Among the options that were tested, bendable, compostable plastic straws and BPA-free bendable straws are the best alternative straw designs that do work for people with disabilities. Both types need to be at least 8.25 inches long.


The study concludes that California’s new straw regulations, and any future ordinances, must be crafted to both reduce plastic waste and ensure access for the Disability community.

Straw study_Jamie
Jamie Caron suggests that restaurant servers ask if a customer needs a straw: “Do not assume people’s abilities.” Photo courtesy DONetwork

Restaurants can lead the way

As restaurants implement the new Straws On Request law, education about straw access is crucial—for restaurant owners and staff, as well as for the Disability community. Restaurants must actively ensure that straws are available upon request and, ideally, make the option known to customers.

Jessie Nguyen, the owner of San Francisco’s Little Window, is excited to be one of the first restaurants to partner with the DOnetwork. “Restaurants are public spaces, and we pride ourselves in playing an active role in the local community,” she says. “This is a make-it or break-it situation: We want to welcome all people, including people with apparent and non-apparent disabilities.”

As a customer who relies on straws, Jamie Caron suggests that restaurant owners and workers always ask if the customer needs one. “Do not assume people’s abilities,” Jamie says. “Just be polite and ask! For example, it’s like asking if you want water right when you are seated by your host or hostess in the restaurant.”

Exploring solutions together

The new state law, and other changes ahead, present an opportunity to build and deepen relationships between environmentalists, restaurants, public officials and California’s Disability community.

“We’re grateful for the Disability community’s commitment to protecting our ocean and marine life from plastic pollution—in ways that work for them,” said Barbara Meister, public affairs director for the Aquarium. “This report, and its findings, illustrate that all of us have a role to play in ocean conservation, and in ensuring access for all people. Through open dialogue and collaboration, we can advance both goals together.”

Learn more: Visit the Disability Organizing (DO) Network at www.disabilityorganizing.net, or email Allie Cannington, DOnetwork’s Statewide Community Organizer, at allie@cfilc.org.

Featured image: An Aquarium visitor views our sea nettle jelly exhibit.

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