Plastic can be an essential accessibility tool for people with disabilities. What happens when we ban it?

As a person living with a physical disability, there are some elements I need to help me live an independent life.

Pre-prepared veggies, ready meals and straws, some of which are made of plastic, are absolutely essential for people like me.

I have limited use of my hands and this has made preparing and cooking meals a nightmare. Until the end of last year I simply avoided cooking meals myself because the kitchen tools I needed weren’t suitable.

Since then I have slowly built my confidence in the kitchen with the help of pre-cut ingredients. But I still feel a sense of regret and guilt when loading my cart with prepackaged items due to the cost and amount of plastic waste left over.

The reality is that plastics can be an essential tool for accessibility.

It’s not just prepackaged food. Disposable plastic straws are vital for people who cannot bring a glass to their mouth or have motor control, chewing, or swallowing problems, and a lack of availability can cause huge concerns.

An uncomfortable compromise

Craig Wallace, Advocacy for Inclusion Policy Officer, says the ban on plastic straws introduces another level of complexity into the lives of people with disabilities by requiring them to negotiate the availability of an item they need to stay hydrated or to carry. that article with them.

And while exemptions that allow the supply of plastic straws to people with medical conditions or disabilities are now in place in most states and territories, there is no requirement to carry plastic straws, meaning it won’t be guaranteed that they will be. available. Paper straws are often not suitable as they lack the flexibility and durability of their plastic counterparts.

A man with a bald head, brown tie and black suit with white shirt
Craig Wallace says the ban on plastic straws adds a layer of complexity to the lives of people with disabilities.(Provided)

“We don’t ask people without disabilities to bring cups, saucers and eating utensils when they go out to a restaurant. We shouldn’t ask people with disabilities who need plastic straws to consume liquids to have to refuel themselves,” Wallace says.

It’s an awkward compromise against a small but highly affected group of people. And while the ban includes provisions for bars and restaurants to stock straws, these exemptions are meaningless as locals are under no legal obligation to include them.

“We are evaluating the ability of disabled people to drink a glass of water in a bar without dying of suffocation against the damage caused by plastic straws,” says Wallace.

Accessible life

The prepackaged food debate was in the spotlight last month when a consumer created a thread on Reddit condemning “dumb” and “lazy” shoppers for buying cut vegetables and contributing to plastic pollution. Included in the post was a photo of the range, – trays and bags of diced onion, sliced ​​spring onion, sliced ​​potatoes and squash cubes.

Teresa Berbury has suffered from severe chronic pain for the past seven years and has recently developed monoplegia with paralysis in one leg due to failed back surgery. Because she lives alone, maintaining an independent lifestyle can be both challenging and rewarding.

A woman in a pink hoodie looks through the refrigerator while sitting in a wheelchair.
For Teresa Burbery, maintaining an independent lifestyle is challenging but also rewarding.(Provided)

“When I prepare the food, I am again reaching out on the bench because it is so much taller than a wheelchair,” says Berbury. “With each course [I’m] putting a strain on my back injury … When I ate the pain levels really went up … This would be my life every night if I didn’t have prepackaged meals. “

Knowing that his weekly food has been prepared, cooked and delivered helps Berbury relax without triggering unnecessary waves of pain.

But he says there are times when he feels that the objects he must use to live independently are something that many fail to understand.

“People can assume that because I’m sitting in my wheelchair, I’m perfectly comfortable and it might even seem easier,” says Berbury.

“But when you analyze what’s actually involved and how limited your movements are while driving the chair, combined with any movement that causes pain, it’s something many people are unable to relate to.”

Korey Gunnis has also relied on ready-made and frozen meals through the NDIS in the past, but says it has been harder to get them lately.

“As a person with cerebral palsy and an autoimmune condition, it has made my life a little easier at the end of the day, when I have more fatigue and pain.”

Gunnis says simply labeling the use of pre-prepared foods as lazy misses the point.

“[It] it comes from a place of ignorance and anyone who has made this statement does not understand what it means to live with a chronic illness and a disability, “he says.

a man in an orange striped shirt and cap stands in front of a cloud-filled valley and behind a sandstone escarpment.
Korey Gunnis, who lives with cerebral palsy and an autoimmune condition, has relied on frozen, ready-made meals through NDIS to make life a little easier when juggling fatigue and pain.(Provided)

The cost of living independently

Aside from plastic waste, the costs of pre-prepared items can be double or even triple the cost of purchasing ingredients individually.

And with the current cost of living crisis, prices are rising.

Disability advocate and appearance activist Carly Findlay believes the cost of pre-prepared essential foods needs to change to be more accessible to people with special needs.

“The cost must [be taken on] from large organizations that use more plastics and create more waste and fossil fuels than individuals with disabilities, “says Findlay.” Many disabled people live above or below the poverty line and are significantly unemployed or underemployed than the rest of the population. “

A woman with curly hair, wearing a bright dress and a polka dot leather jacket, is smiling in front of a blue velvet curtain.
Carly Findlay believes that the cost of prepackaged food, which can change the lives of people with disabilities, is too high.(Features: Sam Biddle)

In 2018, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that the personal income of people with disabilities was $ 505 per week, less than half that of people without disabilities. People with disabilities were also more likely to live in families with a lower gross family income than people without disabilities. Of those whose household income was known, half lived in a household in the bottom two quintiles, more than twice as frequent as people without disabilities.

“Prepared vegetables and ready meals can be inaccessible to many disabled people. The disability tax, the cost that disabled people pay for accessibility, is real, and this [prepackaged food] it proves it, ”Findlay says.

A cohesive perspective

Jane Bremmer is the campaign coordinator for Zero Waste Australia. Having a child with cerebral palsy, she understands how necessary some of the plastic-wrapped food and utensils are for people with disabilities.

“There will always be a need for semi-finished foods for people with disabilities who need that support. And we have a duty to provide it in our society, so as to create fairer conditions for all.” Bremmer says.

“I don’t think it necessarily has to be plastic, but there could be many essential uses for people with all kinds of different skills who need light and easy packaging.”

Cut food and vegetables or processed meals can be important to many different types of people.

Chopped vegetables and salad leaves in a prepackaged plastic bag sold in a supermarket
Chopped food and vegetables can be beneficial for many types of people. (www.woolworths.com.au)

“So we have to find safe packaging alternatives for that, or keep them as essential uses for the people who really need them,” he says.

Teresa Berbury agrees, noting that she always thinks about what can make life easier for her and the planet.

“I do everything I can to minimize my impact, however, where humans suffer, any product or packaging that can make our lives healthier and significantly less painful must be protected by environmental bans,” he says. “With what I live with every day, I absolutely deserve this help.”

Craig Wallace says the problem isn’t just prioritizing climate change. It is a question of not giving priority to justice for those affected.

“It is really appropriate to take into account the needs and requirements of people with disabilities while implementing pollution control measures,” he says.

The future is recyclable

For Jane Bremmer, the best outcome would be for the packaging industry to redesign its products to be safe and affordable for everyone. “It’s completely doable,” she says. “We just need the political and corporate motivation to make it happen.”

Australian companies such as Arnott’s, We Bar None and Vegan Dairy have all started to modify their packaging.

“I’d like to see biodegradable packaging integrated into these food services. Carton would also minimize much of the plastic component of food packaging,” says Berbury.

woman holding up six energy bars
Victorian company We Bar None uses compostable packaging from home.(ABC Ballarat: Dominic Cansdale)

Some large supermarket chains have already introduced recyclable packaging into their ranges.

In 2018, We Bar None became the first Victorian company to use 100% household compostable wrappers for its energy bars and Vegan Dairy in 2020 started using 100% household compostable vacuum bags and labels for the entire range of cheeses. plant-based.

And Arnott’s has committed to transform the soft plastic used in all cookie packaging from multi-material to single-material, so it’s fully recyclable, by the end of 2023.

“If pre-prepared veggies and ready-made meals are making life easier for other people and aren’t hurting you, don’t hate them,” says Carly Findlay. “Accessibility comes in many forms and accessibility to food is a human right.”

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