(This was originally written as an essay for school, on 14 January 2015.)
In early 2008, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I became very sick and spent a week in the hospital, three days in the ICU. When I emerged a week later I was feeling good, had been educated on how to take care of my health, and was now affected by a “lifelong chronic disease”, in the words of the National Institutes of Health[^1].
The thing is, I don’t feel disabled. My diabetes is not a burden. Diabetes doesn’t pose a long-term health risk if I manage it, it doesn’t keep me from doing what I want to do, and it certainly hasn’t kept me from being a normal American teenager. Synonyms of the word “chronic” include “ceaseless”, “unabating”, “dire”, but none of these terms describe my life. So I’m left wondering: Am I disabled? Is this even an illness? Am I missing something?
To be technical, here’s how diabetes affects my life: my body does not make insulin, a hormone that controls glucose levels in the blood; I have to manually inject insulin into my bloodstream. A type 1 diabetic’s job is to be a Goldilocks with their insulin levels: make sure you don’t get too much insulin, or too little—just the right amount to normalize your blood sugar.
I wear a device called an insulin pump which constantly supplies a little insulin to my body through a small catheter. The pump contains a vial of insulin, and by manipulating its settings I’m able to micromanage how much insulin I’m getting at a given moment. I have no dietary restrictions–I just have to dial into my pump whatever it is I’m eating so I can get the insulin to compensate. Aside from that, I keep another device called a glucose meter around so I check the glucose levels in my blood, and I need some sort of food with me, in case my blood sugar gets too low and I need to spike it back up. As someone who’s used this regimen daily for the past 6 years, this routine is relatively simple, and all second-nature.
Yet I’m disabled. Ironically, the time my diabetes felt most like a disability was in the process of receiving accommodations from my university. I remember the administrative coordinator acting uncomfortable even throwing around the name of my diagnosis. It bothered me that my “condition” was deemed too impolite to say out loud.
Additionally, while researching I stumbled upon the legal ADA definition of a disability, which reads “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”[^2]. I immediately thought, Oh I’m sure I don’t qualify for that, then noticed that “diabetes” was an example impairment in the document, and that type 1 diabetics fall under the law’s “umbrella of protection”[^3]. I stand corrected.
I want my experience to be taken as it is; not overemphasized out of a desire to set me apart or to be politically correct. Even people whom society labels as more “chronically disabled” than I agree: dwarf actor Warwick Davis remarked, “The world worries about disability more than disabled people do.”[^4] I agree. This is my disease, but it is not my life.
[^1]: “Type 1 Diabetes”, National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000305.htm
[^2]: “Disabilities Guidebook: Who Has a Disability under the ADA?”. Illinois Legal Aid. http://www.illinoislegalaid.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.dsp_content&contentID=167
[^3]: “Know Your Rights: Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act” American Diabetes Association. http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/know-your-rights/discrimination/employment-discrimination/americans-with-disabilities-act-amendments-act/
[^4]: "13 Questions: Warwick Davis" BBC Ouch! blog. http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/interviews/13_questions_warwick_davis.shtml