Examining Representations of Diabetes


I’m enrolled in a course this semester called “Disability and Culture.” In this class we are looking at representations of disability in film, art, writing, etc. A major take-away from our first lecture was that representations of disability are inherently value-laden. This means that every single time a character or piece of art presents with a disability, there is a value-based meaning attached to it.

Forrest Gump. Hodor. Mad-Eye Moody.

All three characters are defined, motivated, and behave according to the their respective impairments (or rather, to the able-bodied expectations of their impairments). Try and think of a single time you’ve seen a disability presented without some value-based meaning attached to it. You can’t! It’s impossible! Even acute injuries are contextualized, joked about, justified.

Considering this argument, I have been thinking about how diabetes is presented. What first came to mind was of course: fat, lazy, gluttonous, old. Upon a second, and perhaps deeper, reflection I thought: sad, careless, lacking, dependent, unaware, bad.

I’ll be the first to admit I watch a LOT of television. In my observations, the most common representations of diabetes are used as a comedic device or as a plot-pivoting clue. The former is no surprise, right? It might look like this: Character A sits on a couch eating a plate of donuts. Character B remarks “You’re gonna get diabetes.” [Insert laughter here?]. This first common representation of diabetes is one we [in the diabetes online community] have spent post after post, tweet after tweet, trying to dismantle. We do not take this [mis]representation lightly, as it contributes to the stereotypes and stigma attached to living with diabetes.

But the second representation, the plot pivoting-clue, is one we talk about in the diabetes community far less frequently. It might look like this: Crime detective reads blood test results from crime scene, says “The blood sugar level is 350, the murderer must be the wife because she is the only one with diabetes.” My opinion on this representation is not fully formed. I’m mostly filled with questions about how we ought to interpret this as a community. Is the diabetes responsible for the crime? Are people with diabetes easier to catch? Are we being objectified in this process? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments. gfn15xals34wy

In a first attempt to tease out the meaning behind diabetes represented for the purpose of developing or pivoting a plot, I’d argue that diabetes is inconsequential or expendable in this context and can be, rather, taken just as measurable human deviance. In other words, the representation is not of diabetes itself, but simply as a deviant Other. I use deviant in this context to mean “away from the average.” If we take this assumption to be true, then we can also ascertain that diabetes is Other-ing. Diabetes is that which makes us different.

Diabetes is the contrast, the evidence, the scapegoat, the giveaway.

Diabetes is that odd deviation see-able through the microscope.

Diabetes is, then, not only what makes us different, but also what makes us see-able. It makes our invisible variation of difference visible.

I’m not sure about you, but it is curious to feel seen.

The Ideology of Ability

Tobin Siebers was a disability scholar. His book, Disability Theory discusses various disability discourses. Discourse, in the ivory tower (academia), does not necessarily mean conversation, though we can argue that through conversation discourse is created.

Rather, discourse in the ivory tower means the establishment of knowledge.

Who creates and maintains discourse contributes to who has and holds power within the institution of education. What is researched, how it is researched, and when it is researched are all maintained by this institution. This is not to say that the institution is plotting against us, as there is no one governing body making decisions about these things. What is important to remember, is that individuals working as mechanisms of this system are all influenced by their own subjectivity, and yet our set up tells us that objectivity rules the playing field – another topic for another time.

This post is about introducing something as invisible as many of our illnesses, but which impacts everyone with any kind of disability.

In the fashion of sharing information and challenging the system, I am bringing you an introduction to one of Sieber’s main concepts – the ideology of ability.

**Trigger warning**

The Ideology of Ability

And the damage done

It is within thoughts of no traceable origin that the ideology of ability resides; indoctrinated into your being before you were able to decide for yourself. Without your permission, your conscious consent, an idea that an able-body is a good body fused with your prevailing world beliefs. So deeply rooted is this notion and preference for an able-body, that its presence evades you entirely. So long as this untraceable thought goes unquestioned, you will likely never know it is there — lurking, contextualizing, meaning-making, translating for you what you consume, uncritically, undigested. As a result, you will financially and mentally buy into the market’s material and ideological solutions.

As a living person, you follow orders as best you can to maintain and enrich the health of your body. You will eat well, exercise often, and comply with any medical regimen prescribed to you. As a dying person, it will be with conviction you ensure loved ones that the real you, the you that exists wholly independent of the body now failing, will be waiting for them in heaven.

Unchecked paradoxical thoughts such as these, which inevitably subscribe you to the ideology of ability, will repeatedly fail to expose the cruel and indecent consequences befalling individuals who are not able-bodied. For those who do not meet the standards of ability for which you strive, there can conceptually be only a less-than body, a sad body, a body in need of fixing. Every bodily variation, then, every “disability”, will be axiomatically pathologized and ultimately ascribed inferior status as a human being. Because while the real you is not located within your body (an able-body), the real them is located within their body (a broken unkempt body).

You will generate general characteristics of the disabled as a lazy, unmotivated, and defeated people with low quality of life. You will see value only in the disabled person who transcends their bodily-diversity and becomes closer to able-bodied. In that disabled person you will see an exception to the rule; you will see some combination of talent, creativity, potential. In thatdisabled person you will see value and human-worth.

This one is special, you will think.

It is within an “ideology that uses ability to determine human status, demanding that people with disability always present as able-bodied as possible…” (Siebers, 32) that your sense of self flourishes.

Against this ultimate other, the disabled other, you secure your own human status, for so long as you are not one of them, the real you resides beyond the bounds of your body. The real you cannot be diminished, reduced to, or contained exclusively within the confines of your skin, just so long as you are not one of them.