Things Which and Those Who Aren't What We Call Them

Diabetes terminology a matter of equality

By A.Paul Chous, MA, OD, FAAO

I am frequently amazed by how many ‘things' – inanimate objects – are referred to as ‘diabetic.' From cookbooks, diets, and specific foods to exercises, lifestyles, blood glucose testing supplies, and complications, the adjective ‘diabetic' is applied by laypersons and health care professionals alike to describe everything that has anything to do with diabetes. Now strictly speaking, and per the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term "diabetic" may be used as either an adjective to describe something associated with diabetes, or as a noun referring to living creatures having diabetes.

I must admit, however, it has always seemed a bit odd to me to use the same word to denote both living beings and inanimate objects. In my view, it makes no more sense to refer to ‘diabetic supplies' or to a ‘diabetic lifestyle' than it does to call a cane used by someone with arthritis an ‘arthritic cane' or a book about asthma an ‘asthmatic publication.' Conversely, I suspect this conflation of nouns and adjectives is also one important reason why many of us living with diabetes resist being called ‘diabetic.' After all, who wants to be identified with the same word used to describe a sugar-free cookie or a specialty pair of shoes?

This practice of ‘mixing up' nouns and adjectives is certainly not without precedent, nor is it without consequences: People who have lost their eyesight are blind. People with few or no material resources are poor. Similarly, by this insidious logic of reductionism, people who have diabetes are diabetic. We may pay lip service to equality, but the reality of substituting a part of a person for the whole person is that ‘parts,' like inanimate objects, are commonly understood to be of greater or lesser quality, value, and worth. Claims of linguistic brevity and against political correctness to the contrary, objectifying people by making one characteristic of their lives and/or physical bodies substitute for their total humanity is existentially diminutive and has real social and political consequences: It leads to prejudice, it leads to languaged inequality, and it leads to de facto inequality in the school, the workplace, and myriad other societal institutions. Any one who has suffered vision loss, endured economic hardship, or lived with diabetes for more than a brief time knows this. It is very convenient to give people labels, but it rarely leads to more than superficial understanding and never fosters equality.

I have heard some people with diabetes, and even some distinguished diabetes specialists, say that whether or not they are called "diabetic" doesn't make a bit of difference to their lives with diabetes – it doesn't keep their blood sugars under control, it doesn't help them lose weight or exercise more, and it doesn't prevent them from suffering complications like heart disease or blindness. This is true. Without excellent health care, knowledge, education, and hard work it is impossible to take medical control of our diabetes. However, seeing ourselves and having others see and treat us as much more than our diabetes could lead to a much more complete and meaningful life. It may not make managing diabetes easier per se, but it may make our lives fuller and richer. And because language helps shape reality, it may combat political and social discrimination.

My modest proposal is that we stop conflating diabetes with those of us who have to live with diabetes. It's not about being PC. It's not merely a matter of words. It's about power and equality. Tell a friend.

For more information on diabetic eye disease, consult Dr. Chous' book Diabetic Eye Disease: Lessons From a Diabetic Eye Doctor, Fairwood Press, Seattle, 2003.

Read more about Dr. Chous here.

Visit Dr. Chous' website here.

NOTE: The information is not intended to be a replacement or substitute for consultation with a qualified medical professional or for professional medical advice related to diabetes or another medical condition. Please contact your physician or medical professional with any questions and concerns about your medical condition.


Last Modified Date: June 26, 2013

All content on is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.

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