But I Don’t Feel “Disabled”

So Manny over at the TuDiabetes networking site flagged Friday’s post about Steve Sim’s story as a launching pad for the whole discussion: Should diabetes be officially treated as a disability?

And wow, what an emotionally-charged debate…

Insulin_pump_3 My first thought was, that’s a tough one with “invisible illnesses” on the whole. If we haven’t developed any complications, we “diabetics” don’t look or feel disabled, do we? But sometimes we do require special accommodations at work, or while traveling. And sometimes people react very negatively to our disease, even to the point of actively excluding us from certain jobs or privileges.

Still, quite a few folks over at TuDiabetes said NO, diabetes should not be considered a disability, as long as it’s well-controlled and the person is thriving. They argue that a body becomes officially disabled only when complications like blindness or amputation enter the picture.

Others were incensed by this, arguing that people with diabetes need proactive protection by the law, not least because discrimination is often so irrational — like in Steve’s case, where he was perfectly able to perform his job but got booted for being diabetic anyway, or with diabetic children at school.

A lot of it comes down to the question, how do you define a disability? One civil rights specialist points out that the law uses a three prong test. Covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act or The Rehabilitation Act is anyone who:

(1) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities,

(2) has a record of such an impairment, or

(3) is regarded as having such an impairment.*

*Regarded as? That one threw me for a loop.Attitudes

So I check out the link, and found this:

“In 1987 the United States Supreme Court stated, and the Congress reiterated that, ‘society’s myths and fears about disability and disease are as handicapping as are the physical limitations that flow from actual impairments.’

“For example, a person with mild or well-controlled diabetes is barred from participating in sports at school because of his/her diabetes, despite being able to safely participate.

Even when a person does not have a disability (i.e., their diabetes does not substantially limit a major life activity) if s/he is still being treated as though s/he does, they are covered under the ADA definition …”

Reading this actually makes me feel grateful. Because for me, the upshot is what Katrina said:

“I don’t want to think of myself as disabled and don’t want to be looked at that way either. At the same time, if there is ever situation where I am discriminated against — I’d like to have the law on my side.”

Wouldn’t you, too?

9 Responses

  1. Sara
    Sara September 10, 2007 at 6:22 am | | Reply

    Since I work in a college environment, I always ‘advocate’ for my diabetic students to file accomodations for their diabetes as a disability. And it is for the exact reason you stated – just in case they need it.

    I have a disability but I am not disabled. It is all about person-centered vocabulary.

  2. Adam
    Adam September 10, 2007 at 6:22 am | | Reply

    So, I’m wondering, is
    “one civil rights specialist” licensed to practise law? And, more to the point, when was the last time he won a case under the ADA ?

    It sounds as if when it comes right down to it…..
    The party that would win any court case resulting from diabetes discriminaton…..would be the party which has the most money to spend on lawyers.
    (…..What we already knew….)

  3. Sara
    Sara September 10, 2007 at 7:43 am | | Reply

    Adam -

    That civil rights specialist may have been the one to point it out for the purposes of this post but the three prong test is actually part of the law.

  4. Jana
    Jana September 10, 2007 at 9:36 am | | Reply

    Timely post, Amy! I was just pondering the other day whether or not I’m supposed to check the box “Disabled–other disability” on two applications for U.S. gov’t fellowships for graduate school. I ended up deciding not to, but I guess maybe I should change that. I agree with Sara too–I’d like to have the law on my side, if I need it.

  5. Michelle
    Michelle September 10, 2007 at 10:01 am | | Reply

    oh it is so hard! I don’t look at my child as having a disability (heck I don’t even think of him as having a disease) but I am happy that we are allowed the protection that a 504 gives him at school. Its such a fine line. We either have to say “yes, he’s disabled” and deal with THAT or “no he’s not” and deal with the repercussions.

    I’m not sure which route is the right route.

  6. Tim
    Tim September 10, 2007 at 10:05 am | | Reply

    Amy, great comments and summary of the discussion! I was one of minority arguing that diabetes may not necessarily be a disability. But, you make some excellent points and I tend to agree that it is better than not to have the legal protection on our side. As a T1 diabetic, I would never self-identify as disabled, but it is indeed reassuring to know that the protections are there for those who need them.

  7. Angela Biggs
    Angela Biggs September 10, 2007 at 7:05 pm | | Reply

    Thanks for the post Amy. I followed the comment link over to TuDiabetes yesterday, but I couldn’t contribute because I didn’t want to sign up for another website. I ranted to my husband instead, along exactly the same lines as your quoted text. And I completely agree with Sara (in exactly the same words – just ask Jeremy!), “I have a disability, but I am not disabled.”

    Well said.

  8. Antigonos
    Antigonos September 10, 2007 at 10:28 pm | | Reply

    Yes, I feel disabled. One would think that, being a nurse, and working in a medical environment, there would be more understanding, but in fact I have found it not so. I need a regular working schedule–I cannot work all shifts, round the clock, during the space of one week; I need to be able to have (sensible) meals at correct intervals. Nothing very extreme, I hear you say…but the “all for the patients” mentality means that I was forced to accept working schedules and lack of meal breaks that very nearly caused my collapse, until I left the job.
    My type 2 diabetes impacts nearly every aspect of my life–for example, running the kids to school first thing in the morning is now impossible, as several times I’ve become hypoglycemic while driving. But since we diabetics don’t look “ill” it can be very difficult to convince others that we have to be constantly thinking about that next meal, where, when, and what, and can’t be creatures of impulse.
    If disability is defined as ” a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities” (i.e. eating), then, yeah, I’m disabled!

  9. sara
    sara September 13, 2007 at 1:24 pm | | Reply

    And by defining disability as something that substantially limits major life activities, the ADA uses the “functionalist” paradigm, rather than the medical model in which all people are defined by how closely their bodies adhere to the medical field’s definition of “normal.”

    In a perfectly designed world, no one would be “disabled” at all – because they would be able to function as a citizen, employee, customer, person.

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