Is diabetes a disability? ... Sonia Sotomayor is First "Disabled" US Supreme Court Justice?

Article in Mother Jones
by Kevin Drum, 4/9/12

Over at the Plum Line, Jonathan Bernstein riffs off a White House infographic on judicial appointments to remind us that although the Senate has been pretty obstructionist when it comes to confirming judges, it's also the case that Obama hasn't exactly been a house afire when it comes to nominating judges in the first place. Point taken! But when I clicked the link to take a look at the White House's latest graphic wizardry, I was surprised to learn that one of Obama's Supreme Court nominees was the first ever with a disability to win confirmation. I had no idea. But Google, as always, is my friend, and after first coming up dry on Elena Kagan, I discovered that Sonia Sotomayor has diabetes.

Did I already know this? Maybe. My memory is so bad that I couldn't tell you whether I once knew this and have forgotten, or whether I had never heard this before. In any case, I guess I've added two new bits of knowledge to my brain pan today: (1) Sonia Sotomayor has diabetes, and (2) diabetes is considered a disability. Live and learn.

I always have really mixed feelings about saying diabetes is a disability. I don't like people to consider me disabled as someone with T1D and, most of the time, I certainly don't feel disabled!

That said, there are times when T1D does interfere with my life. When my BG is plummeting, I need to treat, and I can't have anything get in the way of that. When I have a day that, despite my best efforts to control things, my BG skyrockets, I have to deal with that. To keep things stable, I have to take a few minutes here and there out of my day to test and adjust my insulin dosages. I have to stick (more or less) to a predictable schedule; I can work around many things, but if someone just said to me, "Let's skip lunch and get this project done!" well, that's probably not going to end well. In all those instances, I am glad to have a law in place that considers my T1D a disability and offers me some protections. I am glad that going through school I had some protections that considered my D a disability and ensured that I had the care I needed (more or less).

I am fortunate that I have a lot of flexibility in my job. If I've had a bad night or a rough morning, no one is going to bat an eye if I just send an email to say that I'm teleworking that day. Very rarely have I been confronted with a work task that significantly interferes with my D care; thus far, I've been able to work around everything fairly easily.

But I know that, at some point, I might be confronted with a work situation that does interfere with my D management, and when that happens, I'm glad that I know what my rights are and that there's a law in place to protect me.

I just want to say this is exactly how I feel! Thanks for putting it in writing!

I guess that as far as the government is concerned it is a disability and I'm happy knowing there are rights that designation brings but I don't feel disabled because of my D. I'm able to do what the average man of my age can do. My D requires more of me than if I had no disease but it does not disable me. In my mind diabetes is not a disability.

The complications that can and frequently do come with diabetes can cause disabilities so I guess diabetes can disable someone. Not everyone has complications.

My D requires accommodations but it dos not require that I be disabled.

Gary S

I think the government considers disability on a case by case basis. I've read that it can take a long time to get it arranged, which I presume would suck if your arm got chopped off by a woodchipper or something horrid like that? I think that the complications are where we might have an "edge" on being disabled? I don't look at myself, or Sonia as being disabled, except maybe when she broke her leg a year or three ago?

I think the problem is that so many people see "disabled" as something that is inherent in a condition, when really it's a societal problem. I don't have a disability because I'm blind; I have a disability because society is designed to cater only to people who have good vision ("medical model" versus "social model" type thing). Any modifications society makes so that people without good vision can function are "accommodations" that aren't normal. Really, all products/services/infrastructures should be designed to cater to the widest variety of people possible ("universal design") which almost always isn't the case.

I think a lot more people might be willing to call diabetes a type of health disability (after all, we DO have to put in a lot of extra effort around eating/exercise/etc. than most people) if there wasn't a sort of "disabled = limited" connotation to the word. Disability should not be associated with being limited in any way; it should be associated with doing everyday things in a different way than most other people.

Jen, I have to say I agree with you and could not have said it better.

i remember there was a huge stink going around the internet on whether or not she should be a judge. People were freaking out that a low will interfere with her judging duties.

I was particularly inspired by Aimee Mullins for her attitude towards disability. You really have to see her TED presentation from 2009. As Jen pointed out, disabilities have to do with problems "other people" and society have, not about a persons potential.

Someday, maybe they will have to ban disabled athletes from the Olympics because they are too good.

I agree about Aimee Mullins, I probably saw her video here from you before but she's very powerful.

They alreay tried to ban Oscar Pistorius from competitions but he has been involved in some sort of negotiations w/ the IOC and is working to qualify. I think that at one point, they said the legs were an advantage and he offered to tune them however they'd like or something like that? A truly noble sportsman. his bio on his website is interesting, breaking legs playing rugby, boat accidents. When he started running, his dad noted a pretty good time (11.72..) and looked it up and discovered it was a WR in the 100 meters at the time. While I'll root for Galen Rupp in his races, I'd like to see Pistorius do well too.

I think it is very important that diabetes be considered a disability as far as employment law is concerned. I was fired from my first job when the boss found out I had diabetes (of course that was long long before ADA and other protections.)

It's astonishing how far the ADA and other protections have come in "mainstreaming" all kinds of support for the disabled. When the requirement for wheelchair ramps at public building first came out, there was an incredible knee-jerk reaction that "those people ought to be in hospitals where I don't have to see them, and not with healthy people" (OK I'm quoting the same guy who fired me!). While the situation is still far from perfect today in terms of things as simple as accessibility, it has been a long time since I heard the "I don't want to be around those disabled people anyway" argument, and instead the accessibility discussions are about how we'll actually provide the accessibility. Such a huge change in mind-set.

Disability or not I personally feel completely disabled in the worst way a good percentage of the time. Not just for work but everything. I certainly was disabled the other night with the paramedics staring me in the face reading a 20 blood sugar level on their meter.

Gary, doctors' offices have samples of Lantus or Levemir. I really wish you could get hold of one and see if it doesn't work far better for you. If so, perhaps you and your doctor could find a way to get it more cheaply. Clearly you have the need.

Personally, I am very pleased to have a role model for our young people with diabetes. In fact, she's a role model for me!

"Me too". Taking advantage of my slight youth over Justice Sotomayor to count myself with the young people :-)

How about an encapsulated islet cell transplant sample? God forbid we should have access to something that could potentially get us off insulin altogether. I could see it now.. All the manufacturers in a picket line "No Diabetes Cure"

I still don't buy the "picket line" suggestion as there would still be an endless supply of future buyers, since the problem would not alleviate the root causes of diabetes?

Let's say Viacyte or a similar company has a breakthrough with transplantation but the transplant only lasts for two to three years and has to be repeated. Let's say the transplant is $20K a pop. Who of average money could pay for that? Because insulin therapy is still considered an effective treatment despite its very dangerous I just don't see insurance paying for a procedure. And even if they did many people with diabetes don't have insurance, me being one of them. Unless someone can offer a breakthrough treatment that cost no more then diabetes supplies for the year which other then test strips is really not that much I think there will be only a limited amount of patients that would benefit. If it came down to it I would pay them $10 a month for the rest of my life.

$20K? That's nothing. Saving $3650 test strips/ year (being *conservative*, like an insurance company...) would cover that in 5 1/2 years, and doesn't even start in on the doctor visits, insulin, syringes, pumps or whatever. They'd do it in a minute!

not to be a downer.. but i've been trying to afford a pump FOR 10 YEARS and its still a dream. and pumps are nowhere near 20k