For people with diabetes (PWD), words matter. Having diabetes can bring on feelings of being out of control and disempowered, and the language that people use around diabetes can sometimes make these feeling even more intense. Words can shape peoples’ perception of diabetes – both those who have diabetes and those who don’t – and when certain words are used to talk about diabetes, it can have a big impact on the way that PWD think about themselves and their relationship with diabetes.

So often the words we use to talk about diabetes, and everything involved in managing it, are loaded and these words can lead to feelings of guilt, embarrassment, shame and even hopelessness. Changing the words people use to talk about diabetes isn’t easy – I catch myself all the time saying some of these loaded words out of habit. But the more we use these, the more they become of our reality, bleeding through our self-perception, emotions and our behaviors, and even impacting our diabetes management. I’m doing my best to change the words I use to talk about diabetes, and make the language I use more empowering to people with diabetes.

What are the words that I’m talking about? Here are some examples:

Test: ‘Test’ implies an evaluation of something. The purpose of taking a test in school is to see how much you know or how ‘good’ or ‘successful’ you are. For many PWD, ‘testing’ blood sugar has become an evaluation as well. This type of thinking can make PWD extremely self-conscious, especially if their blood sugar is outside their target range. Oftentimes, people don’t check their blood sugar because they are scared to see a high reading and they judge themselves based on that reading – they feel like they have failed the ‘test’. While this is a common reaction, seeing the reading as a test can really amplify the emotion a PWD puts on the value. Instead of test, I try to use ‘check’. Checking blood sugar gives you information, information that can empower you to take action, as opposed to getting down on yourself or worse, avoiding the information and the resulting action all together.

Diabetic: Saying that someone is ‘diabetic’ sends the message that having diabetes defines that person’s entire identity, and I have never met a person with diabetes that wants be defined by having diabetes. Think about how we talk about people with other health conditions. People generally say ‘I have cancer’ or ‘I have MS’. Talking about it this way helps us understand that this condition is part of their life, but it in no way defines them as a person. Why is diabetes any different? I get asked all the time if I am diabetic. I do my best not to look annoyed and correct them, but I respond by saying, ‘yes, I have diabetes’, modeling for them how I see myself in relationship to diabetes.

Suffer: People with diabetes don’t ‘suffer’ from diabetes, we live (and hopefully thrive) with it. Saying that someone ‘suffers’ from diabetes makes people with diabetes seem weak, helpless and hopeless, and most PWD don’t see themselves (and aren’t) this way. Many of the people I know with diabetes, even those who experience challenges, see themselves as resilient. Even though living with diabetes is not always easy, diabetes can be managed and people can live long, active and productive lives with diabetes. Remember, well managed diabetes is the leading cause of …. nothing.

I just talked about a few words here, and I know there are many more. Let me know what words you would prefer people NOT use to talk about diabetes in the comments below.

One reply on “Words Matter”

Mark, I disagree with you on some of these points. 1) I don’t care if you call me a diabetic. I am one. I am always going to be one. I don’t have any problems defining who I am as who I am. I have diabetes… frankly I look at diabetes as an opportunity to make great choices and to live life in a healthier, fuller way. And, I’m a diabetic. 2) I sometimes test my blood, and I sometimes check my blood and I use them interchangeably. I am not defined by the number or the score and I don’t let that impact how I feel. 3) I don’t suffer, so I don’t use that word, but many do… so lets not avoid using a term that applies to people who struggle every day. I guess what I’m trying to say is that words don’t define you or your diabetes. You do. Your choices, your desires, and your willingness to make changes for the better. Let’s not get hung up on the victimization of people with diabetes by perpetuating the disempowerment through an over emphasis on terminology without the corresponding focus on empowerment through actionable steps people can take to make changes. BUT, here is a word I hate. Patient. I am not a patient. My relationship with diabetes has little to do with my doctor, a hospital, or the healthcare system, and more to do with my own choices, my family, coworkers, and the way I live my life every day, and for less than an hour a year am I someone’s patient. The rest of the time… I’m just me.

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