Monday, 19 November 2018

The Plastic Straw Ban & How It Harms Disabled People

It was back in February of this year that the conversation about plastic straws started to gain momentum, and I found myself writing about it in the media, talking about it on the Channel 5 News and spending nearly every waking minute explaining disabled people's side of the debate on Twitter. It felt like we made a lot of noise and despite some places having already removed plastic straws from their businesses and large companies like Starbucks announcing the eventual removal of plastic straws, it felt like maybe people were listening. I received so many messages along the lines of 'I had no idea so many disabled people relied on them' which I think is so representative, many people are unintentionally ignorant to the needs of disabled people but what matters is how you respond when you're enlightened.

Last month the subject came alive again as we found out where the government and evidently a large proportion of the general public sit on the issue, plastic straws are pointless is the line that keeps coming out again and again. The government announced a plan to ban plastic straws. Meanwhile, thousands of disabled people in the UK are staring at news articles with confused faces as we think, 'hang on, without plastic straws I can't drink', I don't know about you but that strikes me as quite the opposite of the word 'pointless'. Let's take things back a little first though and talk about the history of the bendy plastic straw.

The history of the straw is a long one but it's the bendy plastic straw in particular I'm focusing on because this is the one that many disabled people use. The bendy plastic straw was invented by Joseph Friedman in 1937 after he observed a child struggling to drink out of a straight straw. His invention didn't really take off until the 1940s though, but when it did his flexible straw was first marketed to hospitals. For me, this is a really important fact. Friedman's flexible straw is cited as an early example of a universal design, in other words it's an example of something being made accessible to all people. It made drinking a lot easier and safer for disabled people, elderly people and those in hospital. After all of my surgeries I spent a lot of time laying in bed, recovering, and bendy plastic straws made drinking possible and easy. When I'm in a flare up or I'm ill I can be stuck in my bed for days sometimes and again, bendy plastic straws mean I can safely, easily and independently drink. Basically, these straws were first used in hospitals for a good reason. They revolutionised things for disabled people.

Some people keep asking questions like, 'what did disabled people do before plastic straws?' as though to prove we don't need them. The truth is, we struggled, suffered from medical complications, weren't independent and as Jessica said, we died. It's like asking what disabled people did before wheelchairs, we were quite simply bed bound. No one wants to go back to either of those times, and so we're fighting this proposed ban.

It was in April of this year that the government's plan to ban plastic straws, alongside plastic drinks stirrers and cotton buds, first started to look serious. A consultation was announced for the end of the year and we were told that these items could be banned from as soon as next year. Now, at this point I have to say I didn't really believe it simply because I couldn't believe how ignored disabled people had been. We'd shouted as loud as we could to get the message out that we needed plastic straws, that we relied on plastic straws, but yet there we were being forgotten and ignored. Fast forward to last month though and things started getting even more serious.

In October 2018 the UK government officially set out it's plan to ban the distribution and sale of plastic straws, subject to a consultation that is open for anyone to respond to. When this was first talked about in April I think one of the reasons why I didn't believe it was because it felt fast, and now this feels even faster. We could see plastic straws disappear within a year, and in fact we are already seeing them disappear from shops, cafes and restaurants. This is a worrying situation if you're a disabled person who relies on plastic straws. Each and every time I bring up this subject, whether it be in person or online, the same response comes up again and again; why can't you just use an alternative? Why does it have to be plastic? Thankfully Sarah, a student and activist, came up with a handy chart which breaks down why the different alternatives available are not suitable for many disabled people.

As explained before, bendy plastic straws were first used in hospitals for a very good reason and whilst there are many other different straws options available, such as paper and metal, plastic is still the best option for a lot of disabled people. If you can use an alternative, great, but some of us can't and we should be believed when we say that. I don't 100% rely on plastic straws, but for me it's a case of things are a lot easier and safer and I'm far more independent when using a plastic straw. I can't tell you how many glasses I've smashed over the years. However, I would struggle to clean a reusable straw and don't have a carer who could do so for me, and I also would struggle to remember to bring them out with me. As it stands I'm taking my own plastic straws with me when I'm out and about but most of the time I forget. Now for me that isn't always the difference between drinking and not drinking, but for many disabled people it is. If you rely on plastic straws and arrive somewhere to find they aren't offered that could easily mean you aren't able to have a drink. I'm not just talking about an after work cocktail either, not having a plastic straw is a barrier to drinking water for some.

As soon as I found a link to the government's consultation on this issue I began to fill it out, not expecting it would take 45 minutes of my time, and that was with skipping questions that didn't apply. They say anyone can fill it out and have their say, but as a disabled person with minimal energy to spare, it didn't feel like this consultation had been designed with the general public, and specifically disabled people, in mind. This is what the government have to say about those who require plastic straws:

'We recognise there are instances where using plastic straws is necessary for medical reasons and our consultation seeks views on how to ensure those who need straws for medical and accessibility reasons can still use them. For example, pharmacies will still be able to sell plastic straws and restaurants, pubs and bars will be able to stock some straws for use on request. The Government will work closely with stakeholders to ensure these exemptions are crafted exactly right.' - Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

Firstly, I've seen the mention of pharmacies in connection with this issue come up a few times now and my worry with going down that road is we will get to the point where plastic straws will be on prescription. Someone else will get to decide whether you're entitled to a plastic straw, and for those who have to pay for their prescriptions that won't be cheap. Equally, even if pharmacies simply just sell them to the general public, it will be an extra expense for disabled people who on average already have £570 of extra costs each month. We are already struggling, by putting the responsibility on us to buy and then remember to take straws with us you will be putting unnecessary stress and strain on our lives. 

The second part of that statement states that restaurants, pubs and bars will still be able to stock some straws for use on request. What we are already seeing is that this is the case, but it's not plastic straws they are stocking for use on request, it's paper. As outlined in the chart above, that won't work for some disabled people. There will undoubtedly be places that will just refuse to stock plastic straws, even for disabled people. And then the other problem with this is you'll have someone else deciding whether someone is disabled enough to need the straw they are asking for. We know how poorly those with invisible disabilities are treated in general and this has the ability to only make that worse. We already have unqualified people within the DWP making decisions about their lives, don't hand that over to the public as well. 

Now, I'm not saying that I have the solution to this problem. We all know that collectively our actions aren't doing good things for the planet but to me the logical way to tackle this problem would be to target the biggest polluters. I came across an article on Eco-Business a little while ago, whilst doing some research for this post, that looked at this issue from the angle of targeting big businesses. It covered how Greenpeace, an environmental group, had launched a campaign ahead of 2018s Earth Day to put pressure on corporations. This was backed up by a plastic waste study that was conducted in September 2017 in coastal areas of the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and the US. This revealed that brands Nestle, Unilever, Coca Cola, Pepsico and Proctor & Gamble were some of the biggest offenders when it came to plastic pollution. If we put the responsibility onto the big names then we'll force a shift towards investing money into finding viable alternatives, rather than the responsibility falling on the general public with our act now, ask questions later ideology. Sure, there are things individuals can do like properly recycling, using a reusable coffee cup and where able, a reusable straw but if this is to be sustainable then it's up to the big corporations to cut their pollution, pour resources into finding alternatives and taking responsibility for their own actions. 

The current trend of targeting straws to me is also just that, a trend. Starbucks exhibited this better than anyone else by announcing that it would remove plastic straws from it's stores by 2020, and in replace of the plastic straw they would offer... a plastic sippy cup lid. If you've seen photos then you might know why I'm rolling my eyes right now, these new lids appear to use much more plastic than a single straw and with no guarantee that they will all be recycled, how much impact will this really make? I spent a solid 5 minutes wheeling up and down streets in London recently trying to find a rubbish bin with a recycling section, with no luck. These plastic lids will simple be contributing to the same problem that they were trying to solve. 

Something that I've found quite entertaining since this conversation began is that single use coffee and drinks cups use far more plastic compared to single use plastic straws and yet our efforts to cut down on their use has been next to none if you compare it to the plastic straw movement. Sure, places offer money off if you bring your own cup but how many people actually do that? It's laughable to me that people still buy their iced coffee in a plastic cup, which they don't recycle, whilst at the same time being happy to remove plastic straws from disabled people, who require them. Don't take my word for it though, the statistics speak for themselves when it comes to recognising that we've got our priorities wrong. Estimates show that plastic straws only accounts for about 0.03% of our global plastic waste by mass. Another study found that an estimated 46% of debris in the ocean is abandoned fishing equipment. So, if straws are only a tiny part of this problem, what are we doing to tackle the big offenders? 

If you combine this with the targeting of pre-cut fruit and vegetables, wrapped in plastic, then it really feels like disabled people are taking the brunt of this social movement. We want to save our planet as much as the next person, but we simply recognise that we don't need to give up our right to be independent to do that. This isn't an either or situation, we don't need to sacrifice disabled people. So, the next time someone tells you how pointless plastic straws are, just remind them that for some people they are the difference between having access to liquids or not. 

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Circus Starr | The circus with a purpose

This year has been the year of firsts for me since I got my new powerchair in February and 2 weeks ago I added another to my ever-growing list as I went to the circus for the first time! Circus' aren't something that have necessarily always interested me but I love gymnastics and acrobatics so on paper it seemed ideal for me. Circus Starr aren't like other circus performances though, they are inclusive, accessible and offer free tickets to allow disabled, disadvantaged and vulnerable children to experience something that typically they might not get the chance to. I was kindly invited along to one of their Luton shows, part of their UK tour, to experience the show and what they do.

Circus Starr is a touring circus boasting world-class, professional artists from across the globe. It was first founded in 1987 and provides free seats for thousands of disadvantaged, disabled or vulnerable children, whilst helping to raise much needed funds for local charities - Circus Starr

Circus Starr are a not-for-profit organisation which supports local businesses and children's charities whilst operating a donated ticket programme that gives thousands of children the chance to experience the circus, thanks to the support of local businesses. The big thing for me is that Circus Starr's performances are relaxed performances, which are aimed at opening up live performance and theatre experiences for people with autism and other learning disabilities, we're seeing more and more theatres put on relaxed performances but I hadn't heard of a circus doing so before this. At Circus Starr children are actively encouraged to interact with the acts, cheer, applaud, move about and can leave and come back at any time to get some space.

Photo via Circus Starr

Another big thing is that on this tour they are bringing a Mobiloo along with them to every date, this is a portable Changing Places which allows disabled children and adults to use the bathroom. These unfortunately are still not commonplace, and I've covered this issue for nearly 2 years now, but having a Mobiloo along on this tour is a big step forward, and a very encouraging one too. It allows families who would typically not be able to attend, or would struggle and have to change their children in their car or elsewhere, to enjoy the experience knowing there are suitable and accessible facilities metres away.

Photo via Circus Starr

Circus Starr are wheelchair accessible too and the wheelchair spaces are front row which I love because in a theatre or at a performance the wheelchair spaces are rarely so close to the action. I had to attend in my manual wheelchair as we could only reach the venue by car and I will say that my Mum struggled to push me across the grass, it would have been nice to see some kind of mat put down leading up to the entrance to make wheelchair access a little easier.

As for the show and the acts, obviously it's been designed for people quite a bit younger than myself and my Mum but we really enjoyed it and felt some of the acts were exciting and daring enough to be entertaining to both the adults and children, I particularly enjoyed the audience participation and the parallel bars act. All of performers were incredibly talented and were really good at interacting with the children.

I do have a little bit of constructive feedback though! There were 2 things that surprised me during the show. Firstly, a balloon was popped during one act, which really shocked me as it's not something I'd expect at a relaxed performance, avoiding loud and sudden noises seems like something pretty key to keeping it relaxed. Secondly, on the flyer and in the show they said how they were deaf friendly but I couldn't spot a BSL or Makaton interpreter anywhere, perhaps I just didn't spot them though! The final act was a song that was partially signed though, and it was nice to see the audience giving the signing a go.

Overall though I really enjoyed the experience and it was great to see so many children having fun and being able to openly show their excitement! Organisations like Circus Starr are so important to allow all children to experience live performances. You can find out more about them, donate to keep them going and find information about applying for tickets on their website. They are touring the UK until 25th January.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Heathers the Musical | Review

Heathers the Musical, an all singing all dancing adapted version of the cult 1988 film landed on stage here in the UK back in the summer at The Other Palace originally. The hype surrounding this musical has been difficult to avoid and I found myself getting swept up in it when it announced it's transfer to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, snapping up 2 tickets for the beginning and end of the run. I hadn't watched the film and barely knew the story but their West End Live performance of Candy Store in particular was enough to have me booking. But, did the show live up to it's hype?

Greetings, salutations. Welcome to Westerberg High, where Veronica Sawyer is just another of the nobodies dreaming of a better day. But when she's unexpectedly taken under the wings of the three beautiful and impossibly cruel Heathers, her dreams of popularity finally start to come true. Until JD turns up, the mysterious teen rebel who teaches her that it might kill to be a nobody, but it's murder being somebody... - Heathers the Musical 

Photo by Pamela Raith

My knowledge of the story of Heathers prior to seeing the show consisted of this; it's a dark comedy about 3 girls named Heathers and it includes a lot of murder. Not exactly the best synopsis is it? The story actually revolves around Veronica Sawyer, played by Carrie Hope Fletcher, and the show starts off at 100mph with Veronica finding herself becoming a Heather, the popular girls at Westerberg High. And then mysterious JD comes along and a lot of murder follows. 

My highlights of the show included the opening number 'Beautiful' with the reveal of the Heathers and Carrie's quick change from old Veronica to Heather's Veronica. 'Candy Store' was of course a favourite too, I was eagerly anticipating it and was surprised that it came so early on in the show, it did feel a little at times like the show had started in the middle of the story rather than at the beginning. I also enjoyed 'Freeze Your Brain' sung by JD, played by Jamie Muscato. A little spoiler alert, Heather Duke's transformation into the head Heather actually made me gasp, it was incredible and will stay in my mind for a long time. For me my highlights really were the most popular songs, ones that I'd heard before or seen performed before. It was the songs that I hadn't heard that I was so eager to love that ended up being a bit of a let down for me. I'm not sure whether it's me or the show, but I just never managed to get into the spirit of excitement that the rest of the crowd were exhibiting.

The show starts off with a bang with 'Beautiful' and 'Candy Store' and for me this sets it up for disappointment because I really felt that things went downhill after those numbers, I had my highlights throughout the rest of the show but nothing else quite lived up to those two, which concerned me since they were all within about the first 15 minutes of the show. I found myself losing concentration a lot whilst watching Heathers, I can't figure out whether this show simply isn't for me or whether it just has a long way to go. It's been a hit amongst it's fans, and amongst Carrie Hope Fletcher's fans and this has carried it through a sold out run at The Other Palace and a transfer to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, so it's clearly doing something right but I just couldn't tap into that myself. For me the story became a little overly ridiculous at times and the stereotypes in it weren't to my taste at all, I wasn't confused but it did leave me just feeling disappointed and a little like I'd watched something completely different to the surrounding crowd who erupted into applause and cheers at every opportunity. 

As for the cast the standout's for me were Jodie Steele as Heather Chandler and Jamie Muscato as JD. Jodie had an incredible amount of power and control whenever she was on stage but she also made me howl with laughter during some of her post-death scenes. Jamie embodied JD perfectly for me, he was dark and mysterious but funny and he drew you in and made you feel both comfortable and uneasy when you developed a crush on a murderer. He was charming and terrifying. Carrie sang each song beautifully, I loved her in Les Mis but in Heathers, she left me wanting more. 

I really did go into Heathers ready to become a mega fan, I even booked a second time to see it in November as I expected to love it so much. Maybe I built it up too much, maybe the hype built it up too much, who knows, but I'm willing to give it a second try next month to see if further into the run I enjoy it more. On to the access at the Theatre Royal Haymarket now!

I hadn't been to TRH prior to seeing Heathers so all my info about access came from their website. At TRH the wheelchair spaces, of which there are two, are situated at the back of the stalls so, I was immediately concerned about the overhang of the royal circle knowing that some of the action takes place on a balcony during the show. To get to the back of the stalls wheelchair users enter and exit via a set of doors just to the left of the main foyer entrance, the main entrance is accessed via several steps so this was totally out of bounds for me. I was able to access my seat and an accessible toilet whilst inside but that was it, I couldn't get to the bar, merchandise and had I left my tickets at the theatre to collect on the day rather than having them posted, I wouldn't have been able to collect them myself so that's something to consider when booking.

As for my view, it's not a huge theatre in terms of depth so I didn't feel far away sitting in the back row of the stalls, I felt pretty close to the action actually. The problem was though, I missed everything that happened on the balcony. There is a moment in particular towards the end of the second act that appeared to be of importance, but I've still no idea what went on during that scene. The balcony was used a lot more than I had expected during the show.

Usually when I go to theatres there is a dedicated member of staff to assist disabled patrons, they are there at the beginning, during interval and at the end to assist with things like buying a programme, getting a drink from the bar and opening doors. Whilst at the beginning I was asked if I wanted a drink from the bar, after that I was pretty much on my own. I managed to flag down a member of staff during the interval to ask about programmes (which are wildly overpriced so for the first time I didn't buy one) but I had to struggle alone, with assistance from other patrons eventually, to open the doors to access the area where the accessible toilet is situated. And then again at the end no one arrived to open the 2 sets of doors so I could leave the theatre, other patrons helped me out again in that instance. The accessible toilet was also small, when you entered there was a small corridor and then it turned into a square shape, I was unable to turn around though and couldn't drive up to the side of the toilet to side transfer either. I have to be honest, overall I wasn't impressed by the access, especially when I compare it to my other experiences at different theatres.

So, maybe Heathers just isn't the show for me! Those who love it seem to really love it but personally, I left with a feeling of disappointment for the first time ever. We've all got at least one show that we don't click with and mine is Heathers.

Heathers is on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until November 24th, buy tickets here.
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