The Debate: Diabetic Or Person With Diabetes?

Beth McNamara Health Guide
  • As a caregiver who is fairly new to the world of diabetes, it wasn't until recently that I realized that there was a debate over whether one was "a diabetic" or "a person with diabetes." Little did I know that each and every time I wrote a post or met someone at a conference or meeting who had diabetes and identified him as diabetic, I potentially was acting like the proverbial bull in the china shop, resembling a bit that stereotypical tacky tourist visiting a foreign country who is wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt and snapping pictures at inappropriate times and proclaiming "I only speak English!"

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    I do not have diabetes, (I am a caregiver of a teenager with Type 1). I therefore personally do not fully grasp what it is like to manage diabetes day in and day out, day after day. Furthermore, it is tough for me to understand what it must be like to be surrounded by others who identify and label you first by your condition and then second by who you are, not understanding that diabetes isn't the whole person, only one part.

    My intention, like most, is not to offend. I did not always come to terms with the potential harm that identifying terms can have. As I writer, I use the terms "diabetic" or "person with diabetes" to add variety in language to a piece (in other words, I had written diabetic one too many times) or to tighten my prose -- to be truthful, an article with numerous phrases saying "a person with Type 1" can bog down its flow.

    Yet writing semantics and sentence cadence aside, I now know that when I identify someone as "diabetic" in a post, I can be feeding, albeit inadvertently, the perception that the individual was labeled only as his disability -- and subsequently the person labeled as a diabetic was only and just that: a diabetic. The term and the condition command front and center stage when defining that person, and thus fueling the concerns that by portraying a person only as a victim of a disease, we re-enforce negative attitudes about the condition and consequently the person. Readers would think first and foremost as "Sam, the diabetic," rather than as Sam the father, friend, police officer, runner or as a redhead, or whatever else Sam may be.

    On the other hand, by identifying one as a "person with diabetes," or "he has Type 1," we have put the person before the disease and help to frame him in a neutral light,  rather than as a poor, downtrodden sufferer of a disease. Let's go back to the example of Sam, who has Type 1 Diabetes. By framing the descriptive phrase about Sam in this manner, the reader allows Sam to have other attributes beyond diabetes, like red hair or a career as a police officer.  

    Perhaps what is the greatest faux pas is when someone with diabetes (and any other disease or chronic condition) is referred to as "sufferer" or "stricken by" or "sick with" or "afflicted by." This type of verbiage elicits feelings of pity, hopelessness and guilt.

    Diabetes is not the only disease that has labels that pigeon-hole those with the condition. Think of epilepsy (an epileptic), hemophilia (hemophiliac), or leprosy (leper). Other disease do not have such labels, like leukemia (one "has leukemia"), depression (one has depression) or heart disease.


  • Those managing diabetes sit on both sides of the line when it comes to this debate. Some are comfortable with the being called a diabetic, whereby others feel strongly that they want to be considered as someone with diabetes. Of course there is always the middle ground, like that taken by Jim Turner, a host on dLife TV, who is a "diabetic person with diabetes."

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    Perhaps the best path to take is to follow the rule of "putting the person before the disease." By doing so, we can put an already tilted playing field on a little more balanced ground, and let the  person with the diabetes decide how he wants to be identified: as a diabetic, or as a person with diabetes ... or a diabetic person with diabetes. 

Published On: September 17, 2009