Type 1 Diabetes: The Debate

On October 26th of this year the New York Times published the article “Many Schools Failing on Type 1 Diabetes Care,” written by Catherine Saint Louis.  [ Take a look]  The article focuses on the issue of discrimination against families with children that suffer from Type 1 diabetes. These children are often rejected from or unrightfully transferred from schools claiming that they cannot (or will not) be held responsible for providing the required care to the children who suffer from the disease. After reading this article I was surprised that I had not heard of this issue earlier, especially considering my background in education. Learning about such blatant discrimination especially surrounding school aged children elicited feelings of disbelief and shock that there is not more attention directed at this problem. There were many questions implicitly raised in the piece and several questions that I still have that I will discuss a little bit in this post. But before we do that, let’s take a closer look at Type 1 diabetes.

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Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks insulin producing cells in the pancreas rendering the organ ineffective. Insulin acts as sort of a gatekeeper for glucose (sugar) in the human body, it allows glucose into our cells but if our blood sugar drops so does the secretion of insulin to prevent the delivery of glucose to our cells.  Without proper function of their pancreas, those with the disease must monitor their blood sugar and/or receive insulin shots; they also need to carefully consider the type of foods that they include in their diet. Based on my own personal experience with a student with Type 1 diabetes, the results of their hourly blood tests or the effect of an insulin shot dictates the possible ingredients of their next meal. Type 1 diabetes is much rarer than Type 2. According the Diabetes.org, out of the millions that suffer from diabetes only 5% have Type 1, most people with Type 1 diabetes are diagnosed as children, hence the disease’s former name, Juvenile Diabetes.

According to the article, the number of children diagnosed with the disease has grown by 21% in “recent years.” One would assume that this growth in prevalence would result in an equal growth in the awareness and resources for the families of these children. In fact, the contrary has occurred. Along with this growth in the number of children diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, the number of complaints from parents to authorities on schools refusing to provide care or even admission has grown. I will admit that taking a step back and examining the viewpoints of stakeholders more specifically the parents/guardians of the children in these situations and the schools reveals that both sides have seemingly viable reasons for their actions. On the parents’ side the viability is obvious, indisputable even— they want to send their children to school fully expecting the institution to view their child holistically, considering their educational, emotional and physical needs, even if their physical needs are a bit (maybe even a lot) more tedious than other students. They certainly are not asking too much, and have every right to demand this from schools. It is very disappointing that their expectations are not being met.

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However, playing devil’s advocate, I can understand why a school may not necessarily want to be responsible for a student with Type 1 diabetes. As I established earlier, the disease requires close monitoring to ensure healthy sugar and insulin levels. Teachers, school aides or possibly the school nurse would have to monitor the student before and after any meals or snacks, before and after any strenuous activities and as a safety measure if the child appears unstable or seems to be in distress. From the school’s stance it seems like a liability to have a student with such serious needs in their care for several hours a day. What if something goes wrong? What if a student shares a sugary snack, unbeknownst to teachers and something goes awry? What if the student goes a little overboard at recess or act gym? On the other hand, is it fair to exclude a child from a gym activity or to avoid having classroom celebrations that include candy and soft drinks (to the chagrin of their classmates) in order to meet the needs of a student with Type 1 diabetes? These are all questions that seem to inform the reason behind schools discriminating against these children and their families.

However, the word discrimination tells us all we need to know about this issue. I am glad the New York Times shed light on this problem. Thousands of parents were definitely empowered to learn that their child has the right be enrolled and considered holistically at any school their parent chooses for them.

Sources: The New York Times, http://www.diabetes.org/, http://www.mayoclinic.org/
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