Let’s Ban Everything – and damn the consequences!

Concern for the planet, and the oceans particularly, has led to calls for single use plastics to be limited and/or banned. The poster child for banning stuff, at the moment, are plastic straws. Some municipalities are moving ahead with a ban without an alternative in place, creating problems for disabled people who have to use straws to drink. But it’s not the only thing that’s being banned without thinking through the consequences. It’s time for cooler heads, and common sense, to prevail.

The news is filled with the damage we have done to the planet, and nothing gets more coverage than the oceans. From the dying coral reefs to the plastic found in the oceans and on our beaches there is definitely a crisis that we all have a duty to act on. The images are heartbreaking. Sometimes, however, our actions don’t meet the facts or solve the problem.

Let’s look at the problem of plastics in the ocean. According to NOAA, while the idea of an island of floating plastic waste might be create a mental picture that’s easier for us to comprehend, it’s not really like that. It’s more confluences of material where the ocean currents take it. And what do those patches of “peppery soup” contain? Micro-plastics, definitely, but a lot of waste from industrial fishing. When it comes to garbage on beaches, the impact is more directly caused by individual human actions. The Ocean Conservatory’s beach clean up reports that the most found items are cigarettes.

Ocean Conservatory poster listing the most found plastics on beach clean ups. Straws are number 7.

When it comes to a ban, momentum is currently behind the plastic straw – the one use type given in restaurants and fast food places with free abandon. Let’s ban them and we save the oceans! Think of the turtles! And it’s something easy to get rid of! No one needs a straw – everyone can drink without it! And we will all feel good, and feel that we’ve done our bit to save the turtles.

Let’s look at this argument one piece at a time. First, going back to the Ocean Conservatory’s report (which was pretty representative of a number of surveys I found), the number one discarded item was cigarettes. If we want to ban something – why not ban cigarettes? Their only positive use is the pleasure of the individual smoking them, while causing countless cancers for both the smokers and those forced to breathe it in as second hand smoke – and they are polluting our beaches. Number 7 on the list was straws and stirrers – so banning straws doesn’t even target any of the main culprits.

Next the turtles – I’m sure we are all use to this report, and the extremely upsetting image of the turtle with the 4 inch straw wedged in his nose. It really makes the issue real for us all. But how common are these images, where the damage is caused by straws? Take a look at the photo in the NOAA article of the remains from dead albatrosses. The most common item is definitely bottle tops – number 5 on the list. There are many actions that we could take to preserve our wildlife, but banning straws, and straws alone, isn’t enough.

It seems like straws have been chosen because it seems so easy to do – because who needs a straw? I’ve seen all kinds of campaigns, including telling people to “stop sucking”, meaning both ways – literally stop sucking on a straw to drink because figuratively you suck because you’re damaging the planet. Quite simply, I suck. That’s how I drink because my mobility issues mean that I can’t reliably lift a cup to my lips. And I’m definitely not alone. There are many, many, people like me. For a myriad of disability related reasons, there are a large number of people who drink through a straw. At home, I drink through what I call an adult sippy cup – it’s a water bottle with a straw built into it. It goes everywhere with me, but when I eat out, or if I’ve forgotten it, I’d like to be able to look like everyone else and not put my damn sippy cup on the table!

Picture of my water bottle with its built-in straw

The next part of the argument runs “you can carry XYZ type of straw, because we all have to do our bit to save the planet.” There’s all kind of suggestions for metal and silicone straws, paper, you name it. Now disabled people are forced to defend why each type doesn’t work for them – metal straws don’t work for people who have spasms and seizures, paper goes too soggy too fast and isn’t robust enough, anything reusable needs really careful cleaning and many of us rely on carers who already have lots to do in the time we have them available, and so on, and so on. Ultimately, it’s another piece of kit to remember to take out to access an experience the world of non-disabled people because the experience is built around their needs and not ours.

Then it hit me. We have a solution that currently fits most of the needs of disabled people. It’s robust enough that it survives a fair amount of chomping but soft enough that it doesn’t damage the teeth and the roof of your mouth. It’s disposable so we don’t need to clean it. It’s readily available so we don’t have to take more stuff with us and can just have a spontaneous drink while we are out, and look like everyone else. What is this wondrous solution? It’s the plastic straw!!! Just let us use the damn straws we currently have – or design something that fits both the environmental viewpoint, works for us and fits the price point of restaurants and fast food joints.

But is this really that important – is the ban going to happen? Well, the City of Vancouver already voted to make it a reality by June 2019. They say that they are going to “continue working with” disability advocacy groups. Great. I wonder what solution they’re going to come up with? The plastic straw?

As the straw debacle has surfaced more and more in the last year, I have generally opted for a common sense solution – make straws available on demand. However, yesterday I read this article about banning laptops in classes. It makes a number of points about the experience of disabled people that I hadn’t brought forward into the straw debate. Sure, it says, disabled people can ask for permission to use laptops, but in doing so, they have to be the ones to go the extra mile by completing the required process, and they then stand out from their classmates who want to know why they “deserve” this preferential treatment and so on. And, once again, the evidence did not support that banning laptops for everyone made students any more attentive. (Putting my educator hat on, it has been proven over and over again that the single biggest influence on the quality of learning any classroom is the quality of the teacher.) Hence, when you ban something and make disabled people apply for special dispensation, it becomes something else that disabled people have to demonstrate their need for, and in doing so, makes them stand out as the Other. The deviance from the norm. The ones with the problem.

There are already too many times that disabled people have to defend their need for an alteration – think about those with invisible disabilities who repeatedly have to defend their “blue badge” to park in designated accessible parking spots. Now, disabled people are going to be left not being able to drink while they are out or, at best, have to request a straw, and at some point have to justify their need for a straw to some know-it-all.

Disabled people are generally not found on beaches for hours, soaking in the sun, drinking multiple Big Gulps and littering. We don’t typically litter that much anywhere – because if we had that much manual dexterity we wouldn’t need the straws in the first place! Banning straws before finding a suitable product to replace them with isolates us and makes us have to defend ourselves unnecessarily. And for what benefit? To reduce the 7th most common item on the list of beach pollution?

I hear you ask what I would do, to appease those who want the ban but still have straws for those who need them? Have options available. Allow people to opt out of straws if they want to. If you have to make it so we have to opt in, then don’t wait until the table has been served and then the disabled person has to request one! When you take the drink order, ask how many people want a straw! (And, find some way to bring it other than in the bare hand of the server that has just cleaned tables and plates, as happened to me.) Find new materials to make straws from that meet our needs but biodegrade in a reasonable time frame. Look at new measures for landfills and other waste dumps – these plastic eating bacteria and so on. And, most of all, find a solution before you ban. Put the solution in place, then the ban becomes unnecessary.

Oh, and try banning number 1 to 6 on the list before you get to number 7?

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MS Awareness at the BC Legislature

On Monday May 7th, I was part of a team from the MS Society that went to the BC Legislature to spread the word on our priorities to the MLAs. At the same time, my mum was visiting from England! It was a trip of learning experiences touched with serendipity, and hopefully, some great outcomes for people with MS and for all disabled people.

The fun started with dinner, on Sunday night. No, this isn’t a foodie blog post, this is still a political post! As we were sat outside, a car pulled up at the traffic lights and two men started shouting “Michelle! Michelle!””Who is that?” asks my mum. “That would be my MLAs”, I reply, as they’re both waving at me from the car. Our walk back to the hotel took us back to the Legislature, we stopped to admire the fountain. The lights had been switched on and turned to red. Lovely!

BC Legislature at night, lit up in white, with fountain in foreground lit up in red

The day began with photos on the steps of the Legislature. While it was mostly smiles and back slapping, it was also good to meet up with my MLAs again – Norm Letnick and Steve Thomson. Why do I say I have 2 MLAs, you might ask? In fact, I have one, Norm Letnick, for Kelowna-Lake Country. In reality, there are 3 ridings that cover the Central Okanagan, so it makes sense for them to work as a team. Since I have known them, they have run their constituency surgeries together, and if there are issues that affect the whole region, one of them takes it on, and moves forward with it. In my time advocating, the third MLA was Christy Clark, who was also Premier, so her representative came to the meetings. Now she has resigned, Ben Stewart was re-elected as MLA in February. I had yet to meet him – but stay tuned, readers!

Michelle, Norm Letnick, MLA, and Steve Thomson, MLAMembers of the MS Society group on the steps of the Legislature with Tania being interviewed by the pressLarge number of MLAs with members of the MS Society team on the steps of the Legislature

After the MLAs did some work in the House, and I went back to the hotel for a sleep, we had lunch, where a number of volunteers sat at tables with MLAs – mostly NDP MLAs, including Adrian Dix, Minister of Health, and John Horgan, Premier. John Horgan met up with Lynn Hunter, an MS volunteer, who had been an NDP MP (yes, federal) – and he had worked for her then! My mum and I sat with my MLAs – Norm and Steve! While we discussed to the MS Society priorities and listened to a presentation on them (which they should know really, really, well, the number of times I’ve told them!) my mum asked them some questions about whether the MLAs of each party “got on” with each other – and when we realized that no-one was rushing to say hi to them or sit with us, I was very thankful that they had come to the lunch to support me. To be clear, this has nothing to do with politics – I’m very clear to them that my personal politics lie far to the left of the NDP! – but it has everything to do with people working together to do the right thing. And I believe that Norm and Steve work hard for the people of the Central Okanagan – as much as we might disagree! As the lunch was breaking up I got to meet the third MLA in the Central Okanagan team – Ben Stewart. It was good to be able to have that first meeting, as we are sure to meet back on home turf, and I’m bound to be asking for support for something.

One of the stories in the presentation was me and the lack of accessible washrooms at the ultrasound clinic – when I had to transfer onto the toilet where the whole waiting room and reception area could see. That was the story picked in the morning by the press too. Super. My washroom habits are now infamous.

As Minister of Health, Adrian Dix proclaimed May as MS Awareness Month in the province of BC. As part of his speech he covered his vision for care – one where supposed concerns for safety (that have little to do with safety) are no longer the drivers for our care system; where we build a system that caters to all the needs of disabled people, not just those most basic functions of care. I’m paraphrasing – but I don’t think I’ve over-exaggerated what I heard. Talking about another priority, a BC Disabilities Act, we heard that once the federal act is written, there is a commitment for a BC act to come next. That was big news for me, and very important – hopefully it will leave us without gaps in our coverage, legislatively, as disabled people.

After lunch we went into the gallery of the house for Question Period. What a performance that is! The bowing to the chair (even when no-one is sat there). The standing up and sitting down. The language. The announcements of the different groups in attendance went on for around half an hour! On our way out, I asked the staff how they ever got anything done, if all they did was announce who was watching them – but I was told that today’s was quite different! Norm (notice the familiarity…) introduced me – and my mum. I knew it was happening, and he had some notes, but at the last minute he decided to “wing it”, he told me later. I have to say me brought a tear to my eye! You can watch him speak by clicking here.

After another quick sleep I went back to the Legislature for a meeting with Tania, the president of the BCY division of the MS Society, and Charles, MS Society BCY Government Relations, and two BC Liberal critics – sort of shadow ministers. They were the Opposition Critics for Health and for Seniors. Joan Isaacs is the Seniors Care critic, while the Health critic is – wait for it – Norm Letnick! The meeting was in Norm’s office, and while we were waiting to start, Norm pointed out someone in the hallway we should meet – Rick Hansen!

Michelle with Rick HansenMichelle, Tania, Charles and Rick Hansen

After some photos and some chat with the Man in Motion, we got down to business. I know from past experience that Norm likes facts and solutions. In his previous career, Norm had been an associate professor at Okanagan College in business, and I think I know how his students would have felt if they put forward a less than complete proposal! We went backwards and forwards, and drew out from our priorities two questions that Norm was going to present as part of the Estimates committee meeting. We left, promising to send him more background information.

This is the part where the trip was sprinkled with a bit of pixie dust or was just plain serendipity. Estimates are the process in the Westminster parliamentary system where the government sets forward detailed estimates of its budget – how much the proposals are going to cost. These go forward to the Committees of Supply, where questions are asked of the Minister and senior ministry officials. All of it is on the record – it’s all recorded in Hansard – so the words, and any commitments, are there in print, going forward. If we had planned our day to be later in the month, we would have missed this opportunity. Similarly, without having built up a relationship with Norm previously, and with him being aware of the care issues, I don’t think we would have been able to get such detail into our discussion, and we would have made much more general points.

For the rest of the week, I became a real political junkie and followed the discussions on Hansard! Norm covered our issues in detail, which, in turn allowed the Minister of Health to get his plans into the record too. We all seem to be in agreement. That needs to transfer into action going forward. Talk is cheap, so they say. If you’re interested in seeing where all this advocacy turned into questions in committee, follow these links:

https://www.leg.bc.ca/documents-data/debate-transcripts/41st-parliament/3rd-session/20180509pm-CommitteeA-Blues

https://www.leg.bc.ca/documents-data/debate-transcripts/41st-parliament/3rd-session/20180510am-CommitteeA-Blues

https://www.leg.bc.ca/documents-data/debate-transcripts/41st-parliament/3rd-session/20180510pm-CommitteeA-Blues

It was a great day – great to see our legislature in action, great to meet so many people and have the MS Society priorities get such recognition. I’m extremely grateful to everyone we met with on the day, and the genuine way they engaged with our issues. Of course, my most grateful thanks go to Steve and particularly Norm for being such great examples of constituency representatives and for continuing to support those who particularly need their voices to be heard. But don’t think they all get off lightly! Now words need to become actions!

Legislature and the fountain