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Language Matters at Diabetes Conferences

By Renza Scibilia and Chris ‘The Grumpy Pumper’ Aldred

How we talk about diabetes matters; using empowering, non-stigmatizing words is important when speaking with and about people with diabetes

Language position statements, first from Australia and then the US and UK, have given healthcare professionals a better understanding of how important it is to use language that doesn’t judge or blame. We can see the positive impact of this reflected in the language used in journal articles, resources, and diabetes conferences.

However, one area where this language movement hasn’t really caught on is diabetes-related complications.

At the recent ADA conference in Orlando, we encountered questionable language in sessions dedicated to research and treatment of complications. We have moved away from using the term “diabetic” when referring to individuals with diabetes, or diabetes programs and services. However, searching the word “diabetic” in the ADA 2018 program app resulted in dozens of sessions about complications. The term is still frequently used when speaking about diabetes-related complications, with the affected body part being seen in isolation.

Talking about the “diabetic foot,” the “diabetic kidney,” or the “diabetic eye” suggests they are somehow separate from the person whose body actually hosts the diabetes. This language suggests the diabetes-complicated body part is more like a malfunctioning car part that needs service – if only we could be provided with a courtesy foot, eye, or kidney to use until our own is better!

Perhaps this language persists because the healthcare providers whose work focuses on complications are necessarily experts in one particular body part. Nephrologists focus on kidneys, ophthalmologists focus on eyes, and podiatrists focus on feet. Their dedicated area of expertise may sometimes obscure the fact that the owner of a “diabetic foot,” for example, has a complete body – and mind – that also needs attention and contributes directly to the issue. While those of us living with diabetes don’t see the parts of us affected by a diabetes-related complication in isolation, it does seem that some of these healthcare providers do.

At conferences, let’s change thinking for the better by encouraging presenters to align the language they use in their materials with language position statements. For instance, “diabetes-related eye conditions” is preferred over “diabetic eyes.” We already see this happen sporadically, but we want to see these statements as a standard inclusion in speaker information packs. There is much more to a person than his or her diabetes – mindful language is a simple shift that can be powerful in reducing stigma and negativity.