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People-First Language

March 17, 2011

I strut around this blog – and this world – calling myself a diabetic. This, believe it or not, is controversial.

The more “correct” term for someone living with my illness is “Person with Diabetes.” You’ll see the term PWD all over the diabetes bloggosphere. It’s an acronym for insiders so pervasive it signifies a certain membership into the diabetes community.

I feel weird using it. I tried it once or twice for size. It didn’t fit. So I call myself – and others, though maybe I shouldn’t – a diabetic.

People-First language is the ethical standard now in clinical settings. Calling someone “deaf,” “disabled,” or “autistic” is considered potentially derogatory or even dehumanizing, whereas terms like “a person who is deaf,” “a person with disabilities,” and so on, acknowledge that these individuals are people first.

I certainly understand this rationale. Advocates have lobbied for years to have legal terms for their communities switched to the “people-first” model. Despite my lousy pancreas and frequent need for injections, I fit in pretty well to this society and don’t generally walk around feeling dehumanized. If I were in a wheelchair, was unable to see, or was dependent on a primary caregiver, I might feel differently. Being a Person First might actually be an issue.

Thing is, I can’t help but feel there’s something shaming about People-First language. We don’t use People-First for our other identities. People call themselves “mothers,” or “Christians,” or “doctors,” not People with Motherhood, or People with Christianity or People with Doctorship. That’s because there’s nothing shaming about identifying as a mother, a Christian, or a doctor.

Certainly no advocate for People-First language would suggest that being wheelchair-dependent either or insulin-dependent is shameful. What’s wrong with taking on that identity with pride? Why pad it with relative clauses?

I am very comfortable calling myself a diabetic, because it’s an identity I feel totally comfortable with. It’s not my only identity, but that’s never stopped me from calling myself a Daughter, a Runner, a Musician, a Canadian, a Jew, an Absentee American, or a Writer. In all fairness, it’s easier for strangers to see that I am more than a diabetic, because I otherwise look “normal.” Different story for people with physical disabilities, special needs, and so on.

I respect the People-First initiatives of my fellow diabetic-bloggers (sorry, PWDs Who Blog). (PWDWB???) I will do my best not to call others “diabetics” who might prefer the People-First acronym. But, at least at this point in my early-days with Type 1, I am happy to welcome “Diabetic” to my spice-rack of identities.

Well, maybe not happy. But willing. And proud.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2011 9:47 am

    The alphabet soup is as dehumanizing as anything else. Be what you want to be.

  2. March 21, 2011 11:55 am

    Nothing shaming about it. It’s about not becoming your disease and therefore not letting it define who you are. I’m not a diabetic, I HAVE diabetes and I also have other diseases, but they don’t define who I am individually or collectively. Other than managing diabetes, I certainly do a heap of other things in my life.

    I’m one of those who takes exception to being called a diabetic – it really makes me cringe.

    • March 21, 2011 1:53 pm

      Thanks for the feedback Sooz! It’s a perspective I’m interested to hear more of. Funny how we all react differently to nomenclature. Thanks for visiting. 🙂

      • March 21, 2011 6:08 pm

        It’s more what we’re conditioned to, I suspect. I don’t live in the USA or Canada, and many more in Australia seem to object to “diabetic”. I’ve been conditioned into thinking ‘diabetic’ is politically incorrect, but there are many better psychological reasons. Funny, if someone called me a Jew, I’d be livid because it’s now (by some) taken to be an insult. I’m Jewish, I’m a mother, I’m a writer, I’m an IT Consultant. I’m lots of things that I do, but I never ever want to BE a disease.

  3. Maximino permalink
    November 22, 2012 3:58 pm

    Dear Sarah, I totally agree with you. I’ve been a type 1 diabetic for 37 years now and I have never felt dehumanized or upset by being called a diabetic. Furthermore, in line with your words, I think it is the best way to designate a person diagnosed with diabetes. It’s not on terminology where we should put emphasis, but on education and other aspects. The only problem with defining someone as diabetic may be that such a definition be the only one for the individual, but that is not to be overcome by a new term. I actually think that this people-first language example tries to solve a problem that does not exist.


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