Sunday, February 22, 2015

People With Diabetes Should Re-Appropriate the Term "Diabetic" (noun)

In December, DiabetesMine ran a post entitled "Using 'Diabetic' vs. 'Person with Diabetes' - Does It Matter?".  It got me to thinking about the term "diabetic" as a noun and how outdated it is, but it also raised the question in my mind as to whether its really worth getting upset over.

Back in 1998, the late Deb Butterfield grappled with the issue of political correctness and the outdated term "diabetic" used as a noun (See for the article she wrote).  Deb wrote "... if it's all right with you, may we take it for granted that we are all people and divide by that common denominator? May we describe 'people who have diabetes' as 'diabetics,' 'people who are citizens of the Unites States of America' as 'Americans,' 'people who work for companies' as 'employees,' and 'people who have medical degrees' as 'doctors'?"  That sounded OK, but it missed the broader issue in my opinion.

In no other disease state are people referred to by their conditions, so why is it OK with diabetes?

For example, we don't ever call people with cancer "cancerians" or heart disease patients "cardiovasclarians" (that may be a bit of a mouthful, but it makes my point), so the complaint about diabetes and use of the term "diabetic" (as a noun) to describe people with diabetes is legitimate.  The real issue is from my perspective is the fact that people who use the term really should be more sensitive to using the term "diabetic" (as a noun) yet really don't see anything wrong with it, and patients are the only ones that seem to complain about it; no one from the medical profession, diabetes nonprofits, or even English language teachers bothers to call them on it, so why should an editor know any better?  If a person with diabetes wants to call themselves (or someone else) with diabetes a "diabetic", then I think that's their prerogative - they have every right to use the term AND they are entitled to do so.  Many grew up in an era when that term was used regularly.

But this raises the question:  Should something be done with the outdated noun "diabetic"?  I propose we as people with diabetes re-appropriate the term.  By that, I propose that we as people with diabetes may use the term diabetic as a noun, but if you're a newspaper editor or someone else, tread very, very carefully - you should probably NOT be using the term "diabetic" as a noun, its politically incorrect.  My logic is as follows:

In sociology and cultural studies, there is a term is called "reappropriation" which means the cultural process by which a group reclaims or re-appropriates terms (that were previously used in a disparaging way to describe that group).  Examples include African Americans using terms like "nigger" amongst themselves, or gays and lesbians using terms like "faggot" or "dyke" to describe one another.  The idea is to de-base the negative connotations associated with the terms by reappropriating them.

I propose that we re-appropriate the term "diabetic" as a noun, but that means we need to be vigilant in not permitting non-diabetic (adjective) people from using it, or we fail to reclaim the term.

Thoughts from other PWD's?


ElizabethT said...

I guess I'm an old-timer (diagnosed in 1972) so I've always used the term without even thinking twice. (I say "I'm diabetic" more often though, so use it as an adjective rather than a noun, but I do say both depending on the situation.)

So I've never quite understood why people get so up in arms about it, in my mind it's only a negative term if you think of diabetes as having negative connotations. For me, it doesn't feel much different from telling people that I'm an author or a runner or an insomniac. None of these fully define me, but they help to describe me.

(By the way, in thinking about it the only other medical conditions I could come up with that are worded as nouns are psychiatric conditions, like schizophrenia or hypochondria or sociopathy. Not sure if that's an especially relevant point, but they do indeed have negative connotations, so take that however you will.)

Gretchen said...

Instead of saying, "She's a diabetic," why not just say, "She's diabetic," as the first poster did? The problem is not with the word "diabetic" but with its use as a noun.

Analogous terms are "drug addict" and "alcoholic."

"He's a drug addict" makes him sound like some kind of low life. Saying, "He's addicted to drugs" makes it sound as if he has a medical condition.

The problem with the noun usage is that it tends to define the person. One wouldn't normally say, "She's a drug addict and an alcoholic and a diabetic and an arthritic." But one might say, "She's addicted to drugs and alcohol and has diabetes and arthritis."

Scott E said...

I tend to think it's not worth the trouble. The online community has "taught" me to dislike the term "diabetic" (as a noun; I don't have an issue with it as a verb), but lately I've tried to overcome my dislike of the term because of its pettiness (my opinion). Yet, though I tell myself I don't mind, something still triggers in my brain when I read or hear the word, and I need to overcome it myself.

As far as "reclaiming" the word, I don't think that will work. The other examples you gave are derogatory in their origins, while "diabetic" is not -- it evolved into something with that perception. And giving all the explanations we need to give (about all sorts of stuff), is this one that's really worth fighting? I think it just puts a dark cloud over the community, making us perceived as petty and/or entitled. I'd rather just let the word go on, and we look the other way.

Mike Hoskins said...

Thanks for the blog mention, Scott. My thoughts were pretty much outlined there, but I tend to agree with Scott E in that it's not what I prefer to spend my advocacy energy on when there's so much else to focus on... I don't get bothered by it. I certainly don't see it defining me, or limiting me, and so it doesn't concern me if anyone calls me a diabetic - that's what I am. Of course, I do tread lightly in using it for others as it is such a toughy issue.

Jonah said...

I learned of the person first debate through the autistic community. I have since read about it in a number of contexts.

My final feeling is that intentional person first language is inherently insulting. If you have to call me a person in order to remember that I'm a person, then I don't particularly want to hear you doing it.

Being diabetic and autistic do not detract from my personhood.

If saying "people with" is linguistically the more obvious and smooth word choice, as in "people with diabetes and other autoimmune disorders tend to have specific HLA types" fine.
But if it's clearly not the most obvious word choice, as in "Jonah is a person with diabetes who kicks ass," rather than "Jonah is an ass-kicking diabetic," then I really mind.

With regards to speaking of a community of people, I think it's always good to know what that community as a whole prefers. The community of people with intellectual disabilities is the one that originated the person-first language; as such it's appropriate to say people with intellectual disabilities.
The autistic adult and blind communities have had pretty strong things to say in opposition to person first language, so when talking about autistic people, autistic is certainly the thing to say, and forget "people with visual impairments" unless you really don't mean blind people.

I see the diabetes community as pretty much split on the issue and therefore don't think it's right or wrong to use either wording.

With specific individuals with specific preferences, one should of course always refer to that person in the way the person prefers.

And finally, with regards to reappropriation- I just don't see diabetic as having that much charge to it. Being queer and having been attacked for being queer, I get how words like queer carry some charge, and I certainly have different feelings about somebody using the term depending on that person's being queer or not.
But I don't have any such associations with diabetic. I am 100% OK with being called diabetic by anybody anytime anywhere.

Gretchen said...

I too don't mind being called diabetic. I do mind (mildly; there are more important things in the world) being called *a* diabetic. Many people don't get the distinction.

Derek Foreman said...

Totally agree, Scott. Posted about this topic March 8 on my own blog.

Melissa Dawn said...

So I just found your blog because I was looking up murder by insulin (not as a "how to", but rather as an interest of someone with Type 1 Diabetes and a fascination with true crime stories, lol). Personally, I prefer to be referred to as a person with diabetes. I worked for over a decade as a medical transcriptionist. In that career I learned physicians are actually trained to refer to patients as people first, not their condition. What bothers me is that when it comes to people with diabetes, physicians are not so careful about that. I've never had a physician dictate "he's a cancerian", however, I have had plenty of physicians dictate "he's *a* diabetic". It's bothersome. I've never had a physician dictate "he's an autistic", only "he's autistic". Maybe it's just a petty issue to most, but I find it annoying that it's okay to disrespect people with diabetes in such a way when it would not be tolerated by people with other chronic illnesses. And I just don't understand how people who are trained to never refer to people with autism as "an autistic" think it's perfectly acceptable to refer to a person with diabetes as "a diabetic". Just my two cents on the subject.