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

As someone with a physical disability, there are a few items I need to help me live an independent life.

Pre-made vegetables, takeaways, and drinking straws – some made of plastic – are absolutely essential for people like me.

The use of my hands is limited and this made preparing and cooking meals a nightmare. Until the end of last year, I would simply avoid cooking meals myself because the kitchen utensils I needed didn’t fit.

Since then, I’ve slowly started to build my confidence in the kitchen with the help of pre-chopped ingredients. But I still feel sorry and guilt when I load my cart with pre-packed items because of the cost and the amount of plastic waste left.

The truth is that plastic can be an essential tool for access.

It’s not just prepackaged food. Single-use plastic straws are vital for people who can’t lift glass to their mouth or have problems with motor control, chewing or swallowing – and their lack of availability can be a major concern.

Inconvenient swap

The ban on plastic straws introduces another layer of complication into the lives of people with disabilities by requiring them to negotiate or carry an item they need to stay hydrated with, says Craig Wallace, Head of Policy at Advocacy for Inclusion.

and while Exemptions allowing plastic straws to be supplied to people with medical conditions or disabilities They are now available in most states and territories, and there are no requirements to carry plastic straws – which means there is no guarantee that they will be available. Paper straws are often not suitable because they lack the flexibility and durability of their plastic counterparts.

Bald man, chestnut tie, black suit and white shirt
Craig Wallace says the ban on plastic straws adds a layer of complexity to the lives of people with disabilities.(supplied)

“We do not require people with disabilities to carry cups, plates and cutlery when they go to a restaurant. We should not require people with disabilities who need plastic pipettes to consume liquids to have to supply themselves,” Wallace says.

It’s an uncomfortable trade-off with a small but highly impressionable group of people. And while the ban includes provisions for cafés and restaurants to stock straws, these exemptions are meaningless because places are not legally obligated to include them.

“We evaluate the ability of people with disabilities to drink a glass of water in a coffee shop without choking to death versus the harm caused by plastic straws,” Wallace says.

Accessible living

The packaged food debate was in the spotlight last month when a consumer created a Reddit thread condemning “stupid” and “lazy” shoppers for buying re-cut vegetables and contributing to plastic pollution. Included in the post is a photo of the set, – trays and bags of chopped onions, sliced ​​green onions, potato slices and pumpkin cubes.

Teresa Burberry has suffered from severe chronic pain for the past seven years and recently developed mono paralysis with paralysis in one of her legs from a botched 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.(supplied)

“When preparing food, I put back on the seat because it’s much higher than the wheelchair,” Burberry says. With every arrival [I’m] Putting pressure on my back injury…By the time I take it my pain levels are really starting…This would be my life every night if I didn’t have meals ready. “

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

But she says there are times when you feel that the items you need to use in order to live independently are something that many fail to understand.

“People might assume that because I’m in a wheelchair I feel completely comfortable and it might seem easier,” Burberry says.

“But when you analyze what’s really involved and how limited your movements are while steering your chair, along with every movement that causes pain, that’s something not many people can relate to.”

Cory Jones has also relied on frozen and ready-made meals through the NDIS in the past, but says it has been difficult to obtain them lately.

“As someone with cerebral palsy and an autoimmune disease, it has made life a little easier for me at the end of the day, when I’m more tired and in pain.”

Gunnis says simply label the use of prepared foods because the lazy misses the mark.

“[It] It comes from a place of ignorance, and whoever made this phrase does not understand what it means to live with chronic illness and disability.”

A man in a striped orange shirt and hoodie stands in front of a cloudy valley and a sandstone cliff behind.
Cory Jones, who has cerebral palsy and an autoimmune disease, relied on frozen, ready-made meals through the NDIS to make life a little easier when he’s playing with fatigue and pain.(supplied)

Cost of living independently

Aside from plastic waste, pre-made items costs can be double or triple the amount you purchase the components individually.

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

Carly Findlay, disability advocate and appearance activist, believes that the cost of prepackaged staples should change to be more affordable for people with disabilities.

“Cost shall be [be taken on] by large organizations that use more plastic and produce more waste and fossil fuels than individuals with disabilities,” Findlay says. Many people with disabilities live at or below the poverty line, and are significantly unemployed or underemployed compared to the rest of the population. “

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

in 2018, Australian Bureau of Statistics You reported that the personal income of people with disabilities was $505 per week, less than half the income of people without disabilities. People with disabilities were more likely to live in families with a lower total household income compared to people without disabilities. Among those whose household income was known, half lived in a household in the lowest two brackets, more than twice the frequency of non-disabled people.

“Vegetables and ready meals may be too expensive for many people with disabilities. The disability tax—the cost that people with disabilities pay for accessibility—is real, and this [prepackaged food] Prove it,” Findlay says.

knit look

Jane Bremer is Zero Waste Australia campaign coordinator. She has a son with cerebral palsy, and she knows how important certain foods and plastic-wrapped utensils are to people with disabilities.

“There will always be a need for semi-processed foods for people with disabilities who need this support. And we have a duty of care to provide that in our community, so that we create a more equal playing field for everyone,” says Bremer.

“I don’t think it necessarily has to be plastic, but there may be many essential uses for people with all kinds of different abilities who need lightweight, easy-to-pack packaging.”

Sliced ​​foods and vegetables, or processed meals, can be important to many people.

Chop the vegetables and salad leaves into a pre-packed plastic bag sold in the supermarket
Sliced ​​foods and vegetables can be beneficial for many people. (

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

Theresa Burberry agrees, noting that she is always thinking about what would make life easier for her and for the planet.

“I do everything in my power to minimize my impact, but in places where humans are suffering, any product or packaging that can make our lives significantly healthier and less painful should be protected from environmental bans,” she says. “With what I live with every day, I totally deserve this help.”

Craig Wallace says the issue is not just about prioritizing climate change. It is a matter of not prioritizing justice for the people affected.

“It is really appropriate to consider the needs and requirements of people with disabilities as we implement pollution control measures,” he says.

The future is recyclable

For Jane Bremer, the best outcome would be for the packaging industry to redesign their products so that they are safe and cost-effective for everyone. “It’s totally possible,” she says. “We just need the political and institutional incentive to make it happen.”

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

“I would love to see biodegradable packaging incorporated into these food services,” Burberry says. “Even cardboard would reduce a lot of the plastic components of food packaging.”

Woman holding six energy bars
We Bar None Victorian brand uses in-house compostable containers.(ABC Ballarat: Dominic Kansdale)

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

In 2018, We Bar None became the first Victorian company to use 100 percent home compostable packaging for its energy bars, and in 2020 Vegan Dairy began using 100 percent home compostable vacuum bags and labels For a whole bunch of vegan cheese. .

Arnott has committed to converting the soft plastic used in all cookie packaging from polypropylene to mono, so that it can be fully recycled by the end of 2023.

“If prepackaged veggies and ready meals make life easier for others, and don’t hurt you, don’t hate them,” says Carly Findlay. “Access comes in many forms – and access to food is a human right.”

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