SFU’s “Re-use for Good” initiative sparks accessibility concerns

SFU aims to reduce single-use plastics on campus — but some students with disabilities have reservations about the initiative

Single Use Plastics and products discouraged at SFU

By: Paige Riding, News Writer

Break out those metal straws and show off your most overpriced tumbler cup because this fall SFU is cutting out an array of single-use plastics and products (SUPPs) as part of its Re-use for Good initiative. 

Around campus, reusable replacements for single-use objects will make their way into the daily lives of SFU community members. SFU’s Ancillary Services and the Sustainability office drove the initiative in partnership with the Simon Fraser Student Society, the Graduate Student Society, and the student-run Ban the Bottle club. SFU’s Ancillary Services mention in their mission statement that they “endeavour to demonstrate community and global leadership through our sustainable practices and engagement as a fair trade campus.” Lowering single-use plastic use on campus is a challenge these groups are facing head-on.

However, some students with disabilities were left concerned by the consultation and decision-making processes, as The Peak learned through email interviews with Vivian Ly and Sanam Prasad, members of SFU’s recently formed Disability and Neurodiversity Alliance (DNA), a group representing students with disabilities. 

When climate change initiatives clash with accessibility

Photo Credit: Paige Riding // The Peak
SFU has rolled out promotional material for Re-Use For Good campaign.

Throughout the day at the Dining Hall, staff can be seen with carts of washable plastic and metal cutlery, cups, and plates to meet the demands of the buffet-style eatery. Once patrons finish their meal, they clear dishes through a restaurant-style dish drop-off station hidden smartly behind a sign boasting their environmentally-friendly initiatives. 

While the metal utensils are eco-friendly, for students like Sanam Prasad — a fourth year history student who experiences severe hand pain and jaw problems — they do not replace plastic utensils. 

Metal utensils are not always usable by people with hand pain. I would personally find it very heavy to use some days and [it] would require me to eat slower,” she wrote to The Peak via email.

At other dining services around campus, plastic straws are also being put out of sight and discouraged. 

As Prasad explained, “not everyone who needs a straw looks visibly disabled in a way that able-bodied people expect us to look like. For example, someone may need a straw for sensory reasons and may not look disabled . . .” 

Prasad notes she experienced being denied straws previously, though not at SFU as of yet. In areas where plastic bans are active, this has become a recurring problem.

“Every time the onus is put entirely on a disabled person to ask for things that provide access, there is a very real chance we are denied,” Ly writes. Ly is “glad that SFU is at the very least committing to ensure that plastic straws are available to those with disabilities.” 

Juan Paolo Santos Dantes of the Sustainability Office notes that “for Phase One of Re-use for Good, we are merely making changes so that straws are not the default option/set-up for beverages. Nonetheless, students requiring straws for accessibility needs have the option to request a straw at point of sale. They do not have to prove, justify, or identify any accessibility reasons to get access to straws.” 

Posters around campus repeat this message. However, Prasad argues that “if I have to request something in order to gain full access to something, that means it is not truly accessible. I do not need to ask for an elevator or a ramp in order to access a building, so why do I need to do the same in order to drink on campus?”

Consultation to ensure inclusivity

Photo Credit: Paige Riding // The Peak
SFU has rolled out promotional material for the Re-Use For Good campaign.

The Peak reached out to the Sustainability office to find out what specific steps SFU had taken to address the concerns of students with disabilities. Dantes responded that the university had consulted both the CAL and the SFSS (which has representatives on the Re-use for Good task force). The SFSS was “asked to represent both the general student perspective and the perspective of students with disabilities.” According to Dantes, the SFSS also referred the Sustainability office to the DNA. 

“We have been actively reaching out to the DNA and the SFSS Accessibility Committee for consultation as we launch this phased initiative,” Dantes writes. 

Dantes points out that Re-use for Good is a phased initiative and that, as he writes, “There are still opportunities for the community of peoples with disabilities at SFU to share and give feedback on the changes before and as they are implemented.” However, according to Ly, DNA has only received consultation as of this week in a “hasty” decision that “shows a disregard for disabled voices on campus.” 

“Accessibility is not an add-on. You shouldn’t implement an initiative and then retrofit accommodations later . . . Meaningful consultation takes time. And you need to do it prior to implementation so you get it right as much as you can the first time.” 

Likewise, though members of the SFSS sit on the task force and the Accessibility Committee, according to Ly (who sits on the committee), they have neither discussed nor been consulted about the initiative to date.

“What is most disappointing and frustrating about all this is that the initiative is already being implemented . . . but we are only being asked for a meeting after the fact,” said Ly. “That’s the crux of the issue — they are going full speed ahead and only bringing us on board later.”  

“SFSS and CAL do not consist of disabled voices . . . involving the SFSS and CAL is great, but also part of a worrying trend of seeing abled people as authorities on disabled people,” Ly continued. “First person perspectives (aka taken from actual disabled students) should be centred at the forefront, not one of the last to be consulted.”

Prasad added to this point, “able-bodied people who work with disabled people [are] not a substitute for the voices of actual disabled people, because they cannot truly represent our voices, concerns, and lived experiences.”

With plastic straws no longer the default serving option around SFU, Ly suggests that the universal design principle, which stresses designing for the inclusivity and accessibility of as broad of an audience as possible regardless of ability, is preferred, rather than the extra step of disabled students having to request straws. This, Ly states, would be “incorporating accessibility into the very building blocks of your design.”

Dantes wrote to The Peak, “Students with disabilities are highly encouraged to learn more about Re-use for Good and fill out our feedback/volunteer survey. Students are also welcome to send any general inquiries, feedback, and questions to sustainability@sfu.ca.”

“By going ahead with Phase One without consultation of the SFU disabled community, Re-use for Good runs a real risk of repeating the mistakes of other similar policies and causing direct harm to vulnerable members of our community,” said Ly.

 “There is a saying in the disabled community,” Ly said. “‘Nothing about us, without us.’”

At the time of press, SFU Auxiliary Services informed The Peak that they were meeting with DNA on Friday, September 6. 

The Peak will continue reaching out to other stakeholders and further discuss and report on this issue in subsequent stories.