Not too long ago, I was hospitalized at UCLA. Since it’s a teaching hospital, a group of med students crowded in my room to observe a case of diabetic ketoacidosis, and I was giving them a rundown on some of the different aspects of diabetes.
“You see, a diabetic has to -” when one of the students looked up from the notes he was furiously taking and stopped me.
“A person with diabetes. Not a diabetic.”
I looked back at him stupidly and asked, in all seriousness, “What’s the difference?”
“Well, you’re not supposed to talk about people solely in terms of their disabilities. It implies that they’re not normal. You’re supposed to make it clear that they are people first, and not emphasize their disabilities.”
Maybe I was never trained in bedside manner, but here’s what I think of this person-first method: It’s crap. I understand the need for sensitivity when dealing with people who are disabled in any way, but I, personally, am not a person with diabetes. I’m diabetic. I’ve been diabetic for nearly 15 years, and I never once felt like less of a person because my mom, best friend or doctor was calling me “diabetic” instead of a “person with diabetes.”
Furthermore, as an editor – also known as “a person who edits a newspaper” – I’m somewhat annoyed by this disfigurement of the English language. Adjective forms of these nouns are used to cut down on unnecessary verbiage. On any given day, I’m referred to as a blonde, an American, a liberal and numerous other things in addition to a diabetic. No one ever feels the need to instead refer to me as a person from America – or, rather, the United States – the way someone might with my diabetes. I know – it’s different. None of those traits carry the implication of interfering with a normal life. It’s not the same as a disability. But personally, I’d stamp “diabetic” on my forehead before I would ever be proud to be an American.
Forget the preoccupation with trying not to offend people. True story: About a year ago, my roommate was describing an encounter she’d had with a guy we both casually knew. She wasn’t sure of his name, so she was describing him to me: “He’s kinda tall, with dark hair, and he’s usually wearing jeans and a T-shirt.” Great. You just described half the population of UCSB. Finally, after 10 minutes of “20 questions,” she lowered her voice to a whisper and said, “He’s African-American.” She was so afraid of offending someone – who wasn’t even present – or being thought of as a racist because she described someone by his skin color that she left out a detail which set this particular guy apart from the majority of UCSB students. Adjectives are not, by nature, racist or otherwise offensive. If it’s the most useful way to describe someone, use it, be it in reference to his skin color or his disability.
People with disabilities of any kind: Embrace them. Yes, I have a disability called diabetes. It sucks. I’m constantly injecting insulin or checking my blood sugar, and there’s a reasonable chance that despite my hard work, my disability will eventually leave me blind or cause my kidneys to fail. No, I’m not a completely “normal” person, and I don’t want to be. My disability is part of who I am, and I accept it. If your concept of self is so fragile that it can be shattered by being referred to as diabetic rather than a person with diabetes, then I think that’s a bigger problem than diabetes itself.
Follow the example of the queer community. They took a word which used to have negative connotations and was thought of as completely “politically incorrect,” and embraced it. They reclaimed the word to describe themselves, causing it to lose all power as a derogatory term.
Use common sense. Some people are very sensitive, and understandably so. But if you’re one of those “people with diabetes,” step back for a minute and think about why you can’t be content with being “diabetic.” It’s just an adjective.
Caitlin Mueller is a Daily Nexus senior copy reader.