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Straws as an assistive technology

Christine H

February 2, 2024

Christine H

February 2, 2024

Three LEGO figurines hold a yellow and white straw

Recently the team at Open have had the pleasure of working with two major global beverage companies considering how disabled people buy, carry, open, consume and dispose of cans and bottles. This has provided so many fascinating insights into the design of beverage packaging. It has also offered us new perspectives about the value of straws as a regularly appreciated, simple, low-cost assistive technology (AT).

When the Open team visited Google’s relatively new London based Accessibility Design Centre (ADC) in January hosted by the ever informative and informed Christopher Patnoe, we saw the humble but helpful straws as part of the display resting proudly alongside some very high tech and futuristic AT. We shared a few insights with our friends from Google and have noted them here for others who may be equally interested in for who and how straws can help people, especially those with diverse experiences of disability.

Straws in a bowl and next to it at the ADC in London
Straws in a bowl and next to it at the ADC in London

Here is the content of the one page document we provided to the Google ADC about straws as a thank you for having us at the centre. These insights were drawn from the research we conducted in Belgium, UK, USA and Canada during 2023. We came bearing straws!

 

Straws can help many people drink cold or hot beverages with greater ease and independence

 

Functional benefits of straws include, that they

  • Limit the need to grip: Some people, especially those who have hand spasms or low touch sensitivity can spill their drink if gripping the drink with their hand.
  • Reduce the need to touch: Some people are very heat or cold sensitive. Not touching the surface can reduce pain or limit reduced hand function once cold.
  • Reduce the need to lift: Many people with low grip or lift strength, upper limb control or limb differences appreciate not having to lift a drink to their mouth.
  • Allow for a smaller opening: For people with tremors, balance challenges, who move less steadily, or who are more susceptible to being bumped can reduce spills by having just the straw as the opening.
  • Provide a safe, flexible material for drinking: For some people who may have challenges controlling muscles around their mouth, head or neck such as those who experience spasms, or those with limited sense of touch to know when they have suitable pressure, a straw provides a safer alternative to metal or glass beverage packaging or drinking vessels.

 

Disability-inclusive benefits

Straws can provide some disabled people with a range of different underlying access needs greater:

  • Independence
  • Ease
  • Control
  • Safety
  • Less pain
  • Fewer spills

And they’re lightweight, low cost, adaptable (if bendy ones) and portable. Some are reusable.

 

Here are some quotes illustrating these benefits.

 

1. Greater Safety

“I have a spastic jaw and I can bite down into a glass bottle and shatter it so I have to have a straw”

Male, 35 – 44, paraplegic, strength and flexibility affected in both hands, manual wheelchair user

 

2. Less pain

“If the drink is in a taller glass, I’ll drink from that directly if my arm is OK. But if my arm is sore, I’ll ask for a straw”

Male, 35-44, power wheelchair user with dexterity challenges

 

3. Lower effort

 “Limited arm strength makes it impossible to lift a heavy bottle or can to my mouth”

Female, 25-34, has Cerebral Palsy and uses one arm and hand

 

Designing for environmental + social sustainability

Most good designers wish to be kind to both people and the planet through their considerations of a new solution, its development and use.

Great design elegantly solves for multiple constraints through effective consultation with diverse experts (including experts through their professional skills and experts through their personal lived experiences).

In 2018 a viral video of a turtle with a straw in its nose triggered many companies banning single use plastic straws.

Disabled people who have the above use cases that make straws specifically valuable to their independence and ease were generally not consulted in these decisions.

Disabled people desire being part of environmentally responsible solutions. New solutions need to be designed with consultation with people with differentiated use cases, disabilities and contexts of use.

A poster which reads SOS SDon't Exclude Us #ChallengingStarbucks D1/5ABILITY @oneinfivescot
A poster which reads SOS Don’t Exclude Us #ChallengingStarbucks D1/5ABILITY @oneinfivescot from a letter to the Starbucks CEO from the One In Five Campaign, August 2018

Erin Vallely wrote an article about the straw ban and use of straws by people in the disability community that was published on the Centre for Disability Rights website, in which she wrote,

“Straws are a tool disabled people rely on, rather than a frivolous, planet-killing item that can easily be done away with without impacting consumers. Disabled people who rely on straws must be included in the conversation, listened to and respected”

 

Over to you – Ask, Listen, Learn, Act

Thoughtful design is inclusive of people and the planet

Do you use straws? Are they an assistive technology for you or just something you prefer? How might we creatively and thoughtfully design a solution, or range of straw solutions that supports the needs of the disability community to access straws in a way that is respectful, normalised, practical and environmentally sustainable?

Thank you for reading!

11 smiley happy people (2 Googlers and 9 Open Inclusion team members) stand and kneel in front of the ADC Centre tactile sign
The team from Open Inclusion at the ADC with the lovely Christopher and Gurmukh from Google and Yasmin from Open Style Labs

 

 

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