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“Our language matters”: Improving communication with and about people with diabetes

In the lead up to National Diabetes Week (11-17 July), we look at Diabetes Australia’s revision of an important position statement

By Gulsun Suleiman [1]

The words we use about diabetes and individuals who are affected by diabetes can impact on their physical and mental health. People living with diabetes, their families and people at risk of diabetes deserve communication that is respectful, inclusive and not offensive.

In 2011, Diabetes Australia started a new conversation about the words we use in and around diabetes care. Since then Diabetes Australia’s original position statement [2] has been applauded by people around the world. There have been many similar position statements published – see here [3] for details.

In 2021, Diabetes Australia has published an update: “Our language matters…” [4]. This new paper provides ample evidence that the way we communicate about diabetes can have serious problems. It reports on the results of a 2019 survey, which shows the words that people with diabetes find acceptable and unacceptable. It dispels some of the myths about communication and makes recommendations for how to choose our words.

The acronyms CARE and BIAS can help us to improve the way we communicate with and about people affected by diabetes.

Our language needs to show that we CARE

C – Curious: Labels such as “diabetic” lead to biases, which can affect the way we communicate and behave towards that person. Instead of using labels, it is important to be curious. Labels can stop us asking questions, such as how things are going in the person’s life, how they are feeling and how the way they are feeling might be affecting their diabetes or how they manage their diabetes. 

A – Accurate: It is important to be clear and concise. Describe the behaviour, not the person. Communicate without judgement or bias, which can alienate and stigmatise. 

R – Respectful: Respect refers to the way you treat or think about someone. If you respect an individual, you can acknowledge an individual’s preferences and decisions, represent their needs positively, offer them information in a way that they can understand and recognise their cultural practices and values. Respect is about recognising that an individual is doing the best that they can with the resources available to them. 

E – Empathic: When you understand an individual, their personal circumstances and their diabetes, then you are more likely to be able to show empathy – that you understand their experiences and appreciate the challenges they may face. Individuals with diabetes don’t need someone to judge them, they need people to understand and support them. 

Our language needs to remove BIAS:

B – Blame: It is important not to blame or shame a person with diabetes, as this can prevent them from managing their diabetes as they need to, or from accessing the care they need for fear of being judged or stigmatised. 

I – Irreverence: Jokes about diabetes, or not respecting a person with diabetes, can diminish a person’s position in our community and is offensive. 

A – Authority: Trying to change a person with diabetes (or to ‘make’ them change) is a waste of effort. Using words like “should”, “must”, “cheat” can leave the person with diabetes feeling like a failure, as they may feel as if they are being scolded by a parent or teacher. Managing diabetes over a lifetime, needs a different approach: help and support.

S – Stigma: people with diabetes often feel judged, criticised and misunderstood. To avoid feeling this way, some people with diabetes hide their condition and how they manage it from others. Research shows this can have negative consequences for their emotional and physical well-being. 

Diabetes Australia encourages us all to choose our words carefully to ensure we are inclusive, respectful and compassionate, rather than judgemental, stigmatising and offensive. 

The latest position statement includes examples of the difference that words can make and how to change the way we communicate about diabetes and its complications, about managing diabetes, and about people with diabetes. Let’s change the conversation!

‘‘No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world” John Keating, Dead Poets Society

To read more about why our language matters, check out the full paper here:

Speight J, Skinner TC, Dunning T, Black T, Kilov K, Lee C, Scibilia R, Johnson G. Our language matters: Improving communication with and about people with diabetes. A position statement by Diabetes Australia [4]. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, 2021; 173: 10655

To read more research about the language matters in diabetes, check out our other ACBRD blogs [5].