Fighting Diabetes Stigma, One Joke at a Time
diaTribe recently hosted an international group of comedians, artists, and activists to combat harmful diabetes narratives through humor. Is laughter the best medicine for diabetes? Stay tuned - more information will be released on dstigmatize.org in the coming months.
Have you heard any good jokes about diabetes? Nope? Neither had I, until visiting the first-ever Spoonful of Laughter workshop, hosted by diaTribe and Dancing Fox with support from Insulet.
The week-long event in San Francisco brought together 19 diabetes advocates, industry members, comedians, and artists from the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, and Scotland. About half of the participants live with diabetes or have a close relative with diabetes. The group also included a representative from the Yes, And…Laughter Lab, an organization focused on creating comedy for social change.
Gathered in the cozy basement of the White Swan Inn, the group brainstormed, rehearsed, and produced videos that cover navigating a diabetes diagnosis, proudly wearing diabetes devices, and managing the roller coaster ride of high and low blood sugar.
Broadly, the videos aim to spotlight surprising facts about diabetes, increase familiarity and respect, counter harmful stereotypes and misconceptions, and encourage laughter and curiosity over judgment.
After all, it’s not every day you’re told to manage a chronic disease by eating more Skittles, said Sam Morrison, a Brooklyn-based comedian and writer who lives with type 1 diabetes. Check out more funny content from Morrison on Instagram @samuelhmorrison.
What is comedy for change?
The goals of this event were two-fold: First, the workshop sought to infuse social messaging into comedy in order to influence cultural narratives and address harmful narratives about diabetes.
“The strategy is based on hacking comedy for social change,” said Matthew Garza, diaTribe’s stigma senior program manager. “Comedians are really good at influencing cultural narratives, enforcing or counteracting stereotypes, and making you think about things differently. When comedians make you laugh, it makes you more receptive to new information.”
Second, the workshop aimed to unite artists, activists, comedians, and members of the diabetes community to build a foundation for future comedy work on diabetes stigma.
“The videos will be ‘proof of concept’ to show that this is a viable idea that we can hopefully scale up with more comedians or larger production,” Garza said. “We want to create a community of people who can talk and work together to share ideas, build on one another, and lean on each other.”
Ultimately, the group hopes to spur a new social movement that uses humor to address harmful beliefs about diabetes across the globe.
Recognizing that diabetes stigma exists everywhere and can look different in different settings, Garza said he intentionally invited a diverse group of participants from various parts of the U.S. and Europe. He understands there is still room for improvement and wants to continue inviting people into the movement from diverse backgrounds representing a variety of lived experiences.
What did the workshop mean to participants with diabetes?
While participants came from different cultural and geographic backgrounds, they all shared a common desire to shift the narrative on diabetes through comedy.
“We want to see if it’s possible to challenge stigma by talking about something so serious in a comical way,” said Santiago Paulos, a UK-based visual designer living with type 1 diabetes (better known as the @thediabeticsurvivor on Instagram).
Instead of addressing stigma through a “boring institutional message,” Paulos said he was excited about the prospect of creating content that has a lasting impact due to its humor.
Diabetes content creator Justin Eastzer (@diabe_tech), who was recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, emphasized the power of media to transform beliefs.
“Content has the power to affect people, save lives, stay in peoples’ minds, and change habits,” Eastzer said. “Media has the unique power of changing minds without you knowing.”
Fellow participant Morgan Fluhrer credits his appreciation of comedy to his many years living with type 1 diabetes and working in the diabetes industry – he currently serves as a territory manager for Insulet, the maker of Omnipod. Over this time, he said he’s dealt with “lots of hard, challenging, fun situations as well as weird opinions about diabetes” and that he hopes to pass on some of his life experience.
“You have to be willing to make fun of yourself,” Fluhrer said. “The more you laugh, the more positive or neutral your outlook can be.”
Looking to the future, Fluhrer said he wants to see diabetes normalized and destigmatized through projects like the workshop.
“I hope the movement takes off. I hope to hear these jokes in popular culture,” he said. Fluhrer is also optimistic that this movement could spur similar campaigns for other diseases and injustices in the world.
“Diabetes is really hard no matter your age or stage,” Fluhrer said. Noting that diabetes burnout and mental health are real challenges, he added that a small burst of humor can go a long way toward helping someone who is struggling. “You never know what might make people wake up and take care of their diabetes,” he said.
The bottom line
While comedy is not the ultimate solution to end diabetes stigma, a little laugh can have a big impact in terms of addressing harmful narratives and providing fresh perspectives on what it’s like to live with diabetes. In other words, a spoonful of laughter helps the medicine go down.
Likewise, the strategies used in improv acting and comedy can also help address everyday challenges, such as navigating diabetes management with your care team or self-advocating for health insurance.
“I plan to bring the ‘yes, and…’ strategy to everyday life and my workplace,” Eastzer said. “When you use this strategy in creation and collaboration, it inspires excitement rather than quashing ideas.”
Overall, the workshop illustrated the power of community by uniting diabetes advocates, artists, and comedians to work toward the common goal of dismantling diabetes stigma through comedy. Through short skits, the group aims to reach people with diabetes, as well as the wider public, with the help of spurring a global movement to combat stigma.
“Making people feel less alone and feel like they are being seen through content – that’s what gives me so much passion,” Eastzer said.
Learn more about diabetes stigma and media representation: