In this second episode with Alice Wong, we discuss the politics of the straw ban.
Alice Wong, "Why Disabled People Need Straws," https://www.eater.com/2018/7/19/17586742/plastic-straw-ban-disabilities
Alice Wong, "The Rise and Fall of the Plastic Straw: Sucking in Crip Defiance," forthcoming from Catalyst: feminism, theory, technoscience
The podcast introductory segment is composed to evoke friction. It begins with sounds of a wheelchair rhythmically banging down metal steps, the putter of an elevator arriving at a person’s level, and an elevator voice saying “Floor two, Floor three.” Voices begin to define Contra*. Layered voices say “Contra is friction…Contra is…Contra is nuanced…Contra is transgressive…Contra is good trouble…Contra is collaborative…Contra is a podcast!…Contra is a space for thinking about design critically…Contra is subversive…Contra is texture…”
An electric guitar plays a single note to blend out the sound.
The rhythmic beat of an electronic drum begins and fades into the podcast introduction.
Credit: Kevin Gotkin
Music excerpt: “Tumbling Lights” by The Acid
Welcome to Contra*: the podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. This show is about the politics of accessible and critical design—broadly conceived—and how accessibility can be more than just functional or assistive. It can be conceptual, artful, and world-changing.
I’m your host, Aimi Hamraie . I am a professor at Vanderbilt University, a designer and design researcher, and the director of the Critical Design Lab, a multi-institution collaborative focused on disability, technology, and critical theory. Members of the lab collaborate on a number of projects focused on hacking ableism, speaking back to inaccessible public infrastructures, and redesigning the methods of participatory design—all using a disability culture framework. This podcast provides a window into the kinds of discussions we have within the lab, as well as the conversations we are interested in putting into motion. So in coming episodes, you’ll also hear from myself and the other designers and researchers in the lab, and we encourage you to get in touch with us via our website, www.mapping-access.com or on Twitter at @criticaldesignl
In this episode, we continue our two-part series with disability activist Alice Wong, who has done incredible work with social media to strengthen connections between global disability communities. Alice is the founder of Crip the Vote and the Disability Visibility Project (which also has a wonderful podcast that you should definitely check out). Alice also hosts Twitter chats and has recently published an edited collection called Resistance & Hope: Crip Wisdom for the People. Alice has been recognized as a notable activist by multiple organizations, most recently by Bitch Media's 50 Most Influential Feminists of 2018. She has also shaped federal disability policy through her work with the National Council on Disability.
If you have not already listened to the previous episode, in which Alice and I discuss disabled people as tinkerers and makers, I strongly suggest going back to that to get an introduction.
In this episode, which we will call Episode four B, Alice and I pick up the thread from previous conversations to discuss the politics of the #strawban. We also touch on maker cultures, design research, and what it means to do truly inclusive design research with and by users. At the end of the episode, we discuss the promises of speculative fiction in helping us imagine new worlds.
Just as a note, in case you are listening with kids, there is some swearing in this episode.
At the end of the episode, we include here a recording of Alice reading from a speculative piece she has written about disabled people surviving apocalypse, which is a teaser for another episode we have coming up in season two about disability and speculative fiction.
Aimi: I'm wondering if we can talk about the straw ban a little bit, in light of these ideas.
Alice: Why not!
Aimi: Because it seems like there's so many different levels of just design issues that come up around the straw ban. One is, first of all, like what the fuck, why is this even a thing? Second, what is a good straw? Who designs a good straw and determines what it's made of, how flexible it is, like that kind of stuff? And then the third is something that I want to also, I want disabled people to talk more about, which is how do we design sustainability?
Aimi: So, if the issue is just straws are just a low hanging fruit, they're kind of this arbitrary, single use plastic that was singled out, but it could have been something else. The problem is, our recycling systems, and our systems of plastics production, and fossil fuel usage and stuff, like at all these different levels, what can crip wisdom and crip culture contribute to the conversation, do you think?
Alice: Wow, these are difficult and deep questions. Yeah, I guess I would just start off with, you know, like you said with straw bands. It's just like WTF? You know, suddenly this thing that disabled people have used every day, that was available, readily accessible, with, like the same thing as napkins and ketchup packets. Suddenly, the straw is the Scarlet S. Like, how dare you use or have straws available. It's been really fascinating, you know, reframing of straws. It's like suddenly they're the villains in our consumer culture, you know, what about packaging, what about all these other things that use plastic?
Alice: And I really do to have to think... I do have to blame these environmental campaigners, you're just didn't really have a well thought out sense of the consequences. You know, I think there was somebody [inaudible 00:02:29], she's one of the people that talked about... that championed this. She led the no-straw campaign and she knew that plastic straws were just this symbolic thing, this low hanging fruit and she wanted it to be this conversation starter. That's all done with this intent of larger change in the future. But without any thought about how it would harm disabled people. And I think it's just that they don't even think about... disabled people aren't only environmentalists who care about this, but that they also are the people who need them and shouldn't be adversely impacted, and that's what's so sad and unfortunate that it took disabled people to really push back on social media, because that's a place where we have for... there's very few barriers in terms of having a platform to say what we want and to have that message amplified.
Alice: So when these bans started coming out, when Starbucks announced they were phasing out straws by 2020 even though they have all sorts of packaging and all kinds of products wrapped in plastic, and yet we've got so many kudos and all these cookies, and all these corporate-responsibility social-good ally cookies, it's a fascinating--. Given the whole hypocrisy, there was just such an overwhelming sense of "this is positive, this is great" without any sense of "oh, let's think about this. What are gonna be the impacts on people?" I think that, to me, was really telling, in terms of the power relations, like who gets to decide what we're gonna focus on, who gets to decide what is "bad" or what is "good." Clearly disabled people aren't part of this framework in terms of who gets to create what is seen as something that we support. I think that's what's really scary.
Alice: People that I see on Twitter who are disabled this past summer, they're being honest about plastic straws, and usage of products. Non-disabled people were just attacking them right and left! Just questioning their existence! I saw people say shit like "Don't worry about the plastic ban, because you can just bring your own," or that people are gonna be okay, people will make exceptions. If disabled people don't... it is already so hard to just exist in public spaces without any kind of intimidation or skepticism or microagressions -- the sense that we're always "faking it" or trying to get... that we're scammers, we're just trying to get some kind of special privileges, which is really accommodations... the sense that we're always gonna be still under surveillance, and we're always gonna be at the mercy of people who feel entitled to question what we need.
Alice: I think that's the thing that really alarmed me about these straw bans, is the cultural message that's coming out, is that your bodymind, your way of functioning is not socially appropriate. It's not socially... environmentally responsible, therefore you must acquiesce and perform to what this... this new way of being because the greater good of saving the planet is more important than the way you survive. And that, to me, I think is the most disturbing, it's very much of a threat on our way of life, and on our right to be in public.
Alice: It's not an exaggeration, in my mind, to think about the parallels of straw... bans like this, like straw bans, and things like the Ugly laws, because it's really about disciplining certain behaviors and certain activities in public. It's really not an exaggeration to think about the way we live is... in a way repulsive, is not attractive, is not "healthy." Our needs are asking for too much, that it would be unreasonable, that it would be wasteful. Those are all the kind of moral or value things that are all placed on plastic, and plastic wasn't seen that way in the past. And I understand the need to reduce consumption, but I find it just... it's such an easy thing to place this responsibility on the individual versus the larger forces at play that really are the ones that really drive plastic pollution. That's a lot more difficult for governments and corporations to tackle. They don't want to think about voluntary systemic changes versus changing individual behavior.
Aimi: Yeah, I totally agree.
Alice: Not to say that this is either/or. I'm just saying that this is a... this overwhelming positive support for straw bans in various cities, it's always been overwhelming and easily passed these ordinances, and I think, again, this is where... thoughts... it's an easy fix to a much more complicated problem. Every time you have these bans that are so absolutist, you're inevitably going to harm people, whether you see it or not, and I feel that's where I feel this tension, is that suddenly there are these amendments or ways to fix these bans, sometimes there these exceptions where disabled people have to request straws as a way to get around these bans. That, to me, itself is very problematic.
Alice: While, yes, these exceptions are better than nothing at all, it's very interesting because, what does it mean to have to self-identify, say "I need a plastic straw" within this new culture of anti-straws. What would it be to say... It's almost like requesting accommodations, right? So, disclosure. Before, you didn't need to disclose you're using a plastic straw because they were available, but now we have to disclose we need one within this environment where you just want to go out with your friends and have a meal or have a latte, what does it mean to have to self-identify what other people don't have to self-identify. That's the thing that I think most non-disabled people, they don't usually see that as problematic, that... "Well, you should be glad that they'll still be available. What's the big deal if you don't request them? Shouldn't you just be glad that they're there at all?"
Alice: And I think that that's the missing piece. The sociological aspect. How does that mark us socially when we're already marked in so many ways? It just adds to this layer of... there's a lot of labor that we have to produce, this emotional labor of having to be at their mercy. I think that, to me, is always the crushing, soul-grinding aspect of living in this world that was really never designed for us.
Aimi: So, two things that came to mind when you were talking, questions I had were, "how do we apply ideas about disabled people as tinkers to the straw ban," and -- you may have some thoughts about this, I think that you... are you on an advisory board or something like that for San Francisco thinking through the straw ban?
Alice: I was just kind of an annoying person that was involved and just attending or being part of their stakeholder meetings as they were working through the amendments, and I sent feedback to the representative of the committee that was in charge. I think I was probably just their unofficial pain in the ass, [inaudible] but I wasn't involvedon an advisory committee but definitely I followed the... their attempts at making an amendment to their ordinance.
Speaker 1: So... within that context or any other context, can you think of a way that ideas about disabled people as tinkers could better inform this debate?
Alice: Well... I think the idea at least if tinkering the ideas, I think the amendments in terms of getting involved with political participation and making sure that we tinker with their draft amendments, I think that's definitely what I would do as well. I've observed, and I've also participated in... we had this motto of "nothing about us without us," and these straw bans are a great example of the opposite of that. These things were done totally without us, yet they were about us, and you see how not only governments but also other corporation or entities are playing catch-up, right? They're like, "oh, okay, we see all these crips are really upset, what do we do? Okay, we'll just have these community forums, we'll get their feedback, and we're gonna do a do-over."
Alice: So in San Francisco, there was an ordinance passed very recently this year that thanks a lot of people on a local level that said "hey, hold on, hold up, this is not cool, you're... the language of your ordinance is incredibly vague. Are there exceptions?" So they're like, okay. So they held two community stakeholder meetings and they also shared, after those meetings, a draft amendment, and we were also able to give feedback, so I think that, in a sense, was where the tinkering took place.
Speaker 2: I could give you an example of... you know, supposedly they took our feedback, we got to tell our stories, we explained why we need these things, and yet they still produced a draft amendment -- get this -- in the original draft amendment, they were going to say, for San Francisco, the sales of plastic straws had to be reorganized into the health aisle. So they wanted to remedicalize straws, so that any shop that wanted to sell plastic straws in San Francisco, had to be in the medical or health aisle. That was their... that was part of their amendment, and they actually thought they could get away with this. After listening to the community, that was part of their amendment. And I was just like, "holy shit." Were they not even listening? Were they just...
Alice: And then I wrote this letter, and I think other folks did as well. But that is just a whole level of re-medicalizing us again, right? We are more than just that. To recategorize straws as a medical device, even though that was... in the very early history, it did serve that purpose, but now it's a much more broader purpose. I thought that was a real step toward [inaudible]. So... I don't wrote letters, other people wrote letters... And they removed that from their amendments. So I think that's what I saw in terms of tinkering, is that we did have the space to give that input before the amendment was actually up. I'm not sure what the status is now, but at least that part of the amendment was removed, and thankfully, that's really from disabled people saying "That's just horrible, that's ableist as fuck."
Alice: That, to me, was just... again, it felt like... people want to listen, people who say they're gonna listen, but it's really interesting to see what they take from their listening, what the end results are, because... again, if we didn't ask, we didn't push for the chance to give feedback before the actual paper was finalized, that would have been it there, and they could have still said, "oh, we had these community stakeholder events, and they sort of have these now." You know, the lip service, going through the motion of doing outreach, but they really should have done outreach way earlier. That's the whole catch-up game, this whole public relations aspect.
Alice: So that, to me, is really interesting as well, that they want to cover their asses and say they did due diligence, but sometimes the end-result is they still try to do stuff that they want, but because we said we want to have this conversation, give feedback, and we want to see a draft before it goes out to the board of supervisors, we had that chance to tinker, and they were obviously able to get the consensus that oh, we're able to stick this out, so... that's tinkering in place, I guess.
Aimi: Definitely. It reminds me of something I wrote about in the conclusion of my book, which was when BART -- Bay Area Rapid Transit -- was introducing their new train cars, and the initial version was totally inaccessible, and they were just going to roll it out, and then a bunch of disability activists said, "uh, no, here's the ten reasons why this doesn't work," and it forced them to have a whole bunch more design prototyping around space and seats and the height of handles and all these things... but then at the end of that, whatever car gets rolled out, it's just going to look like it was accessible all along, and so that process part is not always totally evident, and that's kind of how disabled people's contributions get forgotten, too, that there's so much work that goes into fixing this thing that folks knew was going to be broken if it was produced, and doing that unpaid labor of fixing the broken thing so that it doesn't make things worse, and then at the end it just looks like everything was fine all along.
Alice: [inaudible 00:23:28] the hard part is [inaudible 00:23:30] right?
Aimi: Yeah, they were the best ergonomists. They just got it totally right.
Alice: In the end, our names are never gonna be associated with that process. Just like the straw ban, that's... it's the straw ban, none of our names of the people of the people that actually helped improved the amendments will ever be credited with it, because it's really about the politicians who sponsor those bills, that put those bills into action. Again, this is where, time and time again, marginalized communities are the ones with the vision and the foresight to say, "hey, this is not cool," and they're the ones with the burden of educating people. This happens time and ...opportunity, and I think that's another layer of ideas about our experience is not the same as expertise, or that our expertise is just not seen within a professional context.
Alice: And I think that's what's really... I can't just... We need your help, but we're not going to pay you or we're not going to credit you in the end, and yet so many of us do this because, if we don't, the end result is... we have to do something, right? And sometimes there's a real tension or market, like a trade-offs. Like I don't want there to be here talking about plastic straws. I did not want to do this at all this summer, and yet here I am doing this, and I do this because I felt we had to do this, because otherwise we're gonna let non-disabled people have total control over it, and that's worse, to me, the fact that, if we just receive any sort of ownership of it, I think that that's part of the inherent power dynamics, is that though we are assisting on a role with this, in a way that our contributions may not be recognized, but in the end, this is for us. This is for our future. This will have an impact, whether we get credited or not.
Alice: And I think that's what people do when they have love with their communities, have love for their people, right?
Aimi: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
Aimi: So, one of the things I'm wondering is, how crip knowledge and tinkering could be applied to the problem of changing the system around this. So it could be the industrial systems, the pollution, the real sources of ocean pollution or the real sources of climate catastrophe. What do disabled people say about that, and what are some of the things that our knowledge can contribute to changing those conversations, so we're not just having this straw ban debate next week about plastic forks or... you know what I mean? What are some of the ways that we can challenge or even lend our labor toward challenging those broader systems?
Alice: I'm thinking of some of the .... If more of these are seen as just identifying the problems, I think that's where a lot of crip wisdom just in terms of... even just hauling it out. Hey, this is more about systemic problems versus individual problem. I think that in itself is incredibly valuable, and I think also, calling for... or clarifying that disabled people want better options, but until those who have the means of deciding or creating a sustainable plastic-like alternative... until there's a good product that has the same functionality of a plastic straw, we're still gonna use plastic straws. So I think this is where we could be seen as, we could be utilized as really strong allies with scientists and deciders who want to do this, to say, "hey, we want to be partners with you on creating better things."
Alice: It's not to say we're like these plastic goblins, we just want to use them. I think that's a misunderstanding, is that there is a need for something new that's not PLA, because PLA's still not... it's seen as a better alternative, but it's really not, and I think that's another thing that we're articulating the nuances of the limitations and shortcomings of, for example, corn-based straws or organic-based straws that are not good for some disabled people with food allergies. There's so many reasons why current alternatives don't work for some disabled people, so in a lot of ways, we are carving out and demarcating these things don't work, this is why we don't do this, really decentralizing a new thing that needs to be created, that doesn't have these limitations that are currently available.
Alice: So I do think that there is a huge ditch or space opportunity that disabled people should really be partners in design, partners at the very outset, and there's a conceptualizing this new thought of plastic alternative that's better than all of the existing quote-unquote "sustainable" biodegradable ones. Because truly, things that are out there, the alternatives may work for some people, but many may not work for a broader range of people. That's what's really great about disabled people, is that we all are so varied in our needs, that we cover a lot of bases. Stuff that will or will not work, and all of that knowledge can be harnessed into creating something that's much more universal, hopefully, even though I think that's more of an idealized goal [inaudible 00:32:15] one thing that's, one way to rule them all.
Aimi: Yeah, yeah.
Alice: There is no one magic bullet, but I do think that now that there's... I hate to say it, but now that there is a market demand of a better alternative, that there are gonna be, hopefully, industrial deciders and engineers working to that as this next big things. And hopefully disabled people are gonna be part of that process, because we are the ones to really point out the shortcomings of the existing products, so that's my hope, but again, I think there's such a divide in terms of those who create and innovate in technology versus those who really live it and are able to articulate what's good and bad about the existing technology. They want user experience versus those who actually create. I think that's also still this really interesting relationship, because sometimes the user experience is seen as, "oh, it's important," but it's not gonna be thought of from the very beginning, the ground stage.
Alice: I think that's where the ones who are gonna be the engineers and the deciders are gonna always end up calling the shots in terms of the changes and the innovations, while the user experience side will enhance it, but are they ever gonna be equal partners in this? That, to me, is also the other thing about technoscience that's really fascinating is that, when you have more people who are on the deciders' side who are also the users, who are also ultimately going to be impacted, right? You know...
Aimi: Well, where are disabled materials engineers and people with corn allergies who can design a better plastic straw?
Alice: Right. I want to see that. I think that there's... I'd like to see that. I really... if those who know the systems best are those who are most equipped to make the changes, but right now the way things are is that those who have that cultural capital who are in those positions of power are still these heteronormative, able-bodied folks who just decide for those who are the most in the center. So I think there's still a lot of unknowns, because it's really up to all of us, we're all involved in this, but sometimes I think the responsibility does lie with the most privilege to think about "oh, who are we not thinking about? Who are we not... are we deciding for 90% of the population, or 100%? And what are the things that they need to give up in order to really make that happen."
Alice: That's the crux. People who are willing to share their space and share what they have in order to create something that's really legitimately better, but, again, that takes people to acknowledge, that there are areas that they don't have any authority over, and I think that that's really hard to do for a lot of people, to admit that they don't have expertise in some areas, while people with disabilities have so much expertise and so much of a wanting to be involved, wanting to participate. I think of how we are explaining over and over we are here. We are available and just wanting to engage. So I think that this is a two-way street. It's not always on us to tell people that we're available, but it's on other people to also recognize their privilege and say, "hey, what are some spaces, where are some people that really should be a part of this process? What are we not doing right, that we could do better?"
Speaker 1: I was remembering that your piece for Catalyst begins with this incredible speculative fiction introduction, and it's imagining this future in which disabled people survive the apocalypse and the straw ban, and I was thinking... I've been thinking a lot... I spend a lot of time thinking, "oh, how did we get there? What kinds of things happened," and one of the things that happened in my mind -- this is my speculation -- was that disabled inventors, a broad group of disabled inventors got together and produced a new plastic that worked better for everybody, and that that scaled through the whole system, so all the single-use plastics were replaced with this new substance. And then, at the same time that disabled people continued their environmental activism and activism against militarism, I was thinking about the history of disabled people doing anti-nuclear activism -- which is climate change activism as well, even though people didn't think about it that way necessarily in the 80s -- and continuing to do those things so that there's a politicized element protesting industrial pollution, and the invention element...
Aimi: And in your story, the apocalypse still happened, because actually, apocalypses are happening every day for people of color, for indigenous people, for lots of people around the world, and, of course, disabled people, and still people survived. And I just feel like I want to ask a whole bunch of people to write those transition stories.
Alice: And I think, you know, again, just like... the no matter what type of dystopian future or present we're living in. One thing that's always gonna be constant throughout is that we're always gonna be tinkering, no matter what happens, no matter how shitty things get. Within the most oppressive climates, one thing that's so beautiful and so... I guess I don't want to say miraculous but so [inaudible 00:40:59] that we are always gonna be on the edges, we are always gonna be the ones who really see things way before other people see things, because we live on the intersections and we live on the margins, and I think those who are on the outside, on the edges, are always the ones who see things in the future and the consequences that most people in the center have no ideas about. So that's ... no matter how pessimistic, sometimes, I am, or skeptical about the future, I think it gives me hope that I know that within the most dire of circumstances, disabled people are always finding ways to survive and thrive. Not just survive but thrive as well. So, yeah, that gives me hope.
Aimi: Yeah. And I'll just shout out the Disability Visibility Project's anthology, "Resistance and Hope," which is amazing and exists in an audio format on the website as well.
Alice: For that, yeah, I think that's the twin ideas of resistance and activism, but also this idea that, no matter how bleak things seem, the reason why we keep doing things, is because we do this in the hope of a better future, and we do this out of love. And I think that's what really carries us forward as a people, that we do these things for the love of one another. And that's really powerful.
Alice Reads a speculative fiction piece:
[Scene. Exterior. Campfire in a moonless night. A wizened Asian American wheelchair user wrapped in a shawl tells a story to children gathered by the flickering light]
“There was a day when plastic straws, plastic bendy straws, straws by the pack and individually wrapped, roamed the earth. Some used it for boba, others for their iced coffee. Access was everywhere….and then there were The Bans. The Bans said plastic was bad. The bans made plastic straws disappear. The bans wanted to create a gateway to zero waste. The bans intended to remove single-use disposables from this planet. The Bans came in cities big and small, from Seattle to San Francisco, and from companies like Starbucks. Celebrities praised the #StopSucking campaign with the fervor of fornicating sea turtles. Out of the Internets, oozing from the muck and dumpster fires, arose #SuckItAbleism...disabled people telling their stories on social media. These two tags of hash were in an epic narrative battle over the right to be disabled in public, wholly and unapologetically. With each story and selfie, disabled people created culture, knowledge, and visibility against an ableist tsunami of interrogation, disbelief, and dismissal.”
[Camera pans to children spellbound by the tale, their eyes wide with terror and fear. From the west, a dust storm sweeps through the camp, extinguishing the fire as the children and the old wheelchair user retreat to a cave nearby. Interior. Cave. The wizened storyteller coughs, continuing her story.]
“Like canaries in a cave mine, the Disabled Ones said, ‘We need plastic straws to drink, for nutrition and hydration. We deserve access without requests. Exemptions by the non-disableds cannot protect us.’ And like this howling wind, the voices of disabled people were drowned out as accessibility was sacrificed for a zero waste life, not knowing the value of single-use plastics would have to save the human race post-plague. Now we search high and low for straws for first aid and other plastics to stay alive while the alien strain claim more of our kind everyday. We, the Disabled Ones, had stockpiles for our survival as the Soft Ones [a.k.a. The Non Disableds] withered away with their hemp bandages and pasta straws. We are still here, fighting for everyone. What is the lesson, my little ones?”
[All the children reciting in unison against a backdrop of a makeshift clinic]
“Believe disabled people!”
[Sounds of a wolf howling. Fade to black. Roll Credits]
You’ve been listening to Contra*: a podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. Contra* is a production of the Critical Design Lab, Kevin Gotkin, Aimi Hamraie, Cassandra Hartblay, Maggie Mang, Jarah Moesch, and Leah Samples. Follow us on Twitter at @criticaldesignl and learn more about our projects at http://www.mapping-access.com.
If you enjoyed this episode, please head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review.
The Contra* podcast is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike International 3.0 license. That means you can remix, repost, or recycle any of the content as long as you aren’t making money, you don’t change the credits, and you share it under the same license.