Last week, my Timehop app reminded me of this snapshot in time.
This photo was taken at the 2013 International Diabetes Federation’s World Diabetes Congress in Melbourne, and that look on my face is of pure anger. I was listening to a speaker – a doctor – referring to ‘non-compliant diabetics’ as he was telling of the ‘poor outcomes’ of ‘patients’ in his practise.
The old language chestnut came up again on the second day of the #MayoInOZ conference during the innovation showcase was held. In this session, nine speakers were each given five minutes to present how they are using social and digital tools to improve healthcare. (This is where Kim spoke about #OzDOC and how healthcare professionals use the hourly tweetchat as an opportunity to engage and learn from people with diabetes.)
The final speaker in the innovation sessions was a late addition and it was great to see diabetes again being represented. I know I am biased, but I do always get excited when I see diabetes on the program!
Andy Benson from Coffs Endocrine and Diabetes Centre presented on the project she has been working on: telling the story of diabetes in a series of documentaries to be screened on the BBC.
So, first things first. I love this idea. I am a huge fan of having diabetes out in the ‘public’ space, pulling it out from diabetes groups and diabetes-specific forums, because in most of these cases, we’re preaching to the converted. It’s one of the reasons I love writing for Mamamia Women’s Network where I know that most of the readers probably don’t already have a connection to diabetes.
If these documentaries are screened on the BBC, imagine the audience! It is so refreshing to see people thinking outside the box and looking for ways to present to a new audience – and to tell stories, real stories of real people who actually live each day with diabetes.
Andy showed two short video clips from the still-in-development documentaries. As healthcare professionals on screen spoke about diabetes, I automatically prickled, my language and stigma sensors being alerted straight away.
I wasn’t the only one. In a room with two other diabetes advocates – Kim, Melinda Seed (Once Diabetes), as well as several very vocal health advocates and activists, there was a sense of discomfort at what we were seeing.
I inhaled – maybe ‘gasped’ is a better word – when one of the HCPs used the words ‘diabetes plague’ in his introductory words. There was an undeniable sense of blaming the person with diabetes in the words being used and the sentiments being expressed.
The Twitter conversation from both people in the room and those following along was honest and candid. And, quite frankly, it was uncomfortable too. Andy had disclosed that she has type 1 diabetes, and I didn’t want to be actively criticising the work of a fellow PWD.
However, I could not keep quiet either. When Andy came over to chat after her talk, we had a very open discussion. I was probably quite blunt in my comments.
It is not okay to use language that is stigmatising. The format of the information being presented (i.e. unscripted interviews) doesn’t preclude anyone from being courteous and respectful, and I don’t believe that PWD were being treated either courteously or respectfully in the way about which we were being spoken.
I understand that there is a desire for authenticity and genuineness when interviewing documentary ‘talent’, however it is possible to be clear from the outset that language needs to be respectful at all times. Not sure where to begin with this? How about the Diabetes Australia Language Position Statement which actually provides suggestions for inclusive, non-stigmatising language?
I think it is really important to acknowledge that the road to satisfaction in the way we use language that is inclusive and non-stigmatising is a very, very long one. Also, I genuinely don’t believe that there was any malice intended on the part of the film makers or the interviewees.
We also need to acknowledge that the language used in what has been (and many would argue continues to be) a patriarchal health system is entrenched in the thinking of many – it was part of their training and is a habit that will take time to break. But by acknowledging it, we are not saying it is okay.
As I said, I love the idea that diabetes is a topic for a documentary that is being made for a non-diabetes-specific audience. However, if those people walk away thinking that my healthcare condition is a burden to society (and therefore I am too!) or that they believe it is okay to continue to use words that stigmatise, then there is the potential for this work to do more harm than good.
And finally, a call to not only the coordinators and owners of this work, but to all who are developing any sort of health information using any sort of platform: talk to people with the condition. Lots of them. It is not okay to have one token consumer representative; there should be many – as many as (if not more than) any other expert being consulted.