OP-ED: Diabetes and Discrimination

By Katherine FORD

If diabetes were a country, it would be the third largest in the world with 387 million inhabitants. Another 205 million people are expected to be added to that count in the next twenty years, predominantly in low- and middle-income countries [1]. Diabetes is a chronic illness that can come with a gamut of complications extending from blindness to amputation, from kidney failure to depression, from heart disease to erectile dysfunction. This disease not only affects every system in the body, but also the perception of the individual with the diagnosis by their communities, be that in the work place, family life, or in day-to-day interactions.

Worldwide, a lack of education is plaguing the liberties of people with diabetes. Discrimination is a global experience shared by the diabetes community. Discrimination ranges from termination of employment, blanket policies preventing participation in the labour force, exclusion from schools and recreational programs, and even rules restricting a person from properly caring for their illness. Women in countries such as India and Pakistan are particularly vulnerable to the burdens of social exclusion. Sana Amjal from Pakistan highlights the issue in her words for the International Diabetes Federation’s campaign against diabetes discrimination, “I commonly heard comments like a ‘female with type 1 diabetes cannot have children, so get her married off without telling the guy or his family’, or ‘there is no need to waste money on this child’s education as she is going to die sooner or later’”[2].

I have had type 1 diabetes for 21 years now. In primary school my illness certainly challenged many of my classmates. Some were afraid I was contagious, others found my management requirements uncomfortable, a few made fun of the food I was eating or couldn’t eat. By the time I reached secondary school my peers had gained some awareness of diabetes and were more curious than anything. I noticed less fear on the part of my classmates, but was more confronted by the realities of others’ ignorance surrounding my illness. For example, I was told by my school’s administration that I was not allowed to participate on our school’s social justice trip to the Dominican Republic solely because I had diabetes.

Blanket decisions such as these reinforce ideas that diabetes limits a person. They fail to recognize that this disease exists on a spectrum and that their assumptions about diabetes do not hold true across the board. I am very capable of managing my condition – be that at home, in the workplace, or while travelling to countries with similar resources to those of the Dominican Republic.

As we finish up our occupational health module I can’t help but think of the additional burdens we place on people with medical conditions based on uninformed assumptions. The burden of illness is enough in itself. Instead of exclusion, how about we try education; instead of one-size-fits-all policies, negotiation; instead of discrimination, support. If curiosity about diabetes should strike, or even assumptions worth questioning, I am happy to share with you my experiences in hopes of future free of diabetes discrimination – or better yet, a future free of both diabetes and discrimination.






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