I was born with a disability called arthrogryposis that restricts the movement of muscles in my arms and legs. One of its outcomes is my inability to lift my hands against gravity. In my early childhood, this posed a challenge to my mother: how would I consume meals independently?
She came up with two innovations. The first was ulti katori, an upturned bowl that I would place my wrist on for support as I spooned vegetables and pulses from other bowls. The second innovation was using plastic straws to make me drink water. I could not lift the glass to my mouth but the straw ensured I was not dependent on others to drink water, and I could control the frequency and size of each sip as well. Over time, I took to using straws to drink soft drinks, milkshakes, tea, coffee and soup. On more than one occasion, waitstaff at restaurants put ice cubes in my soup, fearing that sipping it with a straw might scald my mouth. As I grew older, cold coffee was replaced by beer and soup was replaced by whiskey, but the method of drinking remained the same. With the advent of the internet, I realised that what I thought was my mother’s invention was a common practice globally.
I eventually got into the habit of carrying a pack of straws with me wherever I went.
Over the years, I have tried paper and metal straws as alternatives. Paper straws often dissolved in the drink or got accidentally bitten by me. Metal straws, being conductors of heat, became too hot or too cold depending on the temperature of the drink. The disabled community worldwide has come to appreciate plastic straws for their strength, flexibility and safety that no alternative comes close to matching.
Then I began reading reports that made me fear my independence might not last my lifetime. Plastic was non-biodegradable and was thus being banned. Would plastic straws be banned too?
In March 2018, Maharashtra became India’s 18th state to ban plastic. But, like other states, it exempted an exhaustive list of items from the ban – milk packets; wrapping for processed food; dustbin liners; plastic bottles; and packaging for medicines, solid waste and agricultural products.
Plastic straws were conspicuously absent. Instead, business establishments would soon be fined for using plastic straws.
I was disappointed, heartbroken, scared, but not really surprised. In December 2015, when the Delhi government implemented the odd-even scheme of road rationing, it did not even consider the transportation challenges faced by Persons with Disabilities and forgot putting them on the exemptions list. Last year, the same government decided to procure 2,000 standard floor buses that would be inaccessible to Persons with Disabilities. Eventually, based on my petitions, the Delhi High Court reversed both the decisions. When the central government introduced the Goods and Services Tax in July 2017, previously tax-free disability aids were taxed at 18%. It was equivalent to a person being taxed for walking, seeing or hearing. The rate was eventually brought down to 5% following nation-wide protests by Persons with Disabilities. A case to make the aids tax-free again is pending in the Supreme Court.
On July 17, Barack Obama delivered a lecture to mark Nelson Mandela’s birthday. The former American president quoted the iconic South African leader as saying, “Democracy is based on the majority principle. This is especially true in a country such as ours, where the vast majority have been systematically denied their rights. At the same time, democracy also requires the rights of political and other minorities be safeguarded.”
Obama then weighed in, “He understood it’s not just about who has the most votes. It’s also about the civic culture that we build that makes democracy work.”
Disability comes unplanned. It can strike anyone at anytime. In fact, it strikes everybody as body movements give way with age. So, in trying to save the environment for future generations by banning plastic, let us ensure that Persons with Disabilities are not deprived of an easy, dignified way to quench their thirst.
Nipun Malhotra is CEO, Nipman Foundation, and founder, Wheels For Life. He is on Twitter @nipunmalhotra.