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17th October 2019

Plastic straws have their merits: let’s talk about disability and accessibility

Chatting to Kate Foy – Disability Part-Time-Officer – about the importance of plastic straws, accessibility online and beyond
Plastic straws have their merits: let’s talk about disability and accessibility
Photo courtesy of Disabled Students Society

As someone who is non-disabled, my awareness of accessibility is limited as it is not something I have to consider in my day-to-day life. It is an issue that is not discussed widely, meaning that we’re reliant on members of the disabled community, and individuals, to educate and raise awareness of it.

The media does not help either. If you were at the University of Manchester in October 2018 I’m sure you’ll remember the clapping-ban being passed, and the media storm that followed. Instead of starting a discussion about accessibility in society, students were accused by mainly non-disabled critics of being overly-sensitive because we’re the “snowflake generation.”

So, let’s finally have a conversation about accessibility.

I spoke to Kate Foy, who is the Disability Part-Time-Officer (PTO) at UoM as well as the chair of the Disabled Students’ Society. Kate and I quickly began having a conversation about accessibility and disability, where I scribbled more notes than I do in my lectures.

Because of this lack of awareness around accessibility, decisions are made without considering disabled members of society. One example that came up in our conversation was the recent choice for establishments to ban plastic straws. Great, we’re cutting down on the amount of plastic by not offering plastic straws, but we’ve ignored those who do need them.

I didn’t realise that non-plastic straws are not suitable alternatives for those who are disabled. If you have limited mobility, being able to change the angle of the straw is necessary, metal straws are also a health-hazard for those who have seizures, and allergens are also present in alternative and natural straws which are an additional risk. Interestingly, plastic straws were not initially used in cafés and bars. They were used hospitals in the 1930s, when they were first mass produced, as they allowed patients to drink lying down and being disposable meant the straws would not need sterilising like non-disposable alternatives. Removing plastic straws now means that people who need them have to ask, facing potential judgement while the rest of us feel smug about saving the planet. Kate questioned why the views of the many are outweighing the needs of the few.

We went on to discuss accessibility in society and on social media.

For me, the most obvious is wheelchair accessibility – however, Kate explained to me how vague simply putting ‘wheelchair accessible’ is. There are things to consider like: is the room layout easily maneuverable in a wheelchair? And are the corridors large enough to do so? Is the wheelchair ramp hidden at the back of the building, and covered in crap that should have been removed? And is the toilet accessible by a lift?

As a starting point, if you are planning an event, consider finding out more about the accessibility of the venue, and provide this information to your audience beforehand so the necessary preparations can be made.

Accessibility also means so much more than physical facilities. I asked Kate what an accessible event would look like for her, and she said that knowing how many people are expected to attend the event is useful information, and the sort of activities that are expected to take place. Also, making it clear there is someone who can be contacted to enquire about any additional access requirements.

Kate mentioned social media accessibility, yet another issue that hadn’t occurred to me. By making small changes to the way you post on social media, you can ensure that people with additional needs can also enjoy your content. Here are some suggestions:

  • Choose a larger font size
  • Use an image description: this is for individuals who use screen-readers which will describe the image out loud – Instagram has a built-in setting for this
  • Use closed captioning on videos
  • Don’t write #HASHTAGSLIKETHIS or #hashtageslikethis instead write #HashtagsLikeThis because it makes distinguishing words easier

These are just a few options to create a more accessible social media platform, and this is all extremely doable. There is plenty of information online if you’d like to find out more.

We live in an ablest society, one which discriminates in favour of non-disabled people, and a disablist society, one which discriminates against disabled people. So, please be pro-active when planning events to consider access requirements and be willing to learn and do some research yourself as to what can be done. And, if you get things wrong – don’t debate it. Instead be open to being corrected and listen to those who are experts by experience. Unlike during the clapping-ban debacle, where those who would benefit from the policy, such as those with autism and anxiety, were ignored.

This is a small insight into the conversation that I had with Kate, and there is still so much more to be discussed. If you have any questions, or would like to have training for your society, Kate offers presentations about becoming more inclusive to disabled students. Kate can be contacted via the Disabled Student’s Society University of Manchester Facebook page.

From the 22nd of November till the 22nd of December it is Disability History Month, and the Disabled Students’ Society will be hosting events. Follow their social media to keep up to date: Disabled Student’s Society University of Manchester and UoM Disabled Students’ Society University of Manchester on Facebook.

A PTO is a voted in member of the student body who represents liberation groups and challenges the university on these issues, as well as running campaigns. All of this is done alongside your degree. If you’re interested in becoming a PTO, elections will be held in January – keep an eye out on the SU website.

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