Type 1 Diabetes, Disability and the Role of Legislation in Advocacy – A Post by Pramita Jasuja

This is a post by Pramita Jasuja that was originally published on the T1International blog on April 9, 2021. I am sharing it here today because I thought it was an interesting take on how type 1 diabetes is (or in this case, is not) recognized in another country. Thank you to Pramita for sharing her story and explaining the importance of legislation in advocating for people with diabetes.

Every new type 1 diabetes (T1D) diagnosis can be intimidating, both for the person and the family members. Many people with T1D are told they should be able to live a “normal” life and that they can do everything that a person without diabetes can do.

As a newly diagnosed child with blood sugar levels of over 570mg/dl, all that was on my mind was T1D. But a year post-diagnosis, when daily needles became the new normal, I was told by my family that I was completely fine and that there “was no need to tell anyone” about my medical condition. “I am normal” was stuck in my mind and I took it very seriously. So much so, when my endocrinologist asked me as the “patient” to sit near her chair, I replied: “I am not a Patient.” Both my parents and the endo smiled.

It’s been 7 years since that incident and I now reflect on my statement, especially over the word “normal”. Calling yourself “disabled” can have negative connotations attached to it. People often refrain from using that word, as if living with a disability is abnormal. Though if we do this, we deny a part of us. When it comes to legalities, the word “disability” is significant. Disability legislation considers people living with disabilities as subjects who possess rights capable of claiming that they have a disability – not those simply given charitable treatment. This was spelled out in the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), the human rights convention that hit the highest number of signatories.

I live in India. It’s one of the countries that has ratified this convention, but it’s also a country where myths and stigma overtake the real issues. A report by WHO found that in low-income countries where superstitions surrounding diabetes are common, the fatality rate is high. India is no exception. Due to a lack of proper health care facilities and a lack of national registry exclusively for T1Ds, children in the country are facing late diagnosis and even death. Considering the level of poverty in the country, blood test strips and continuous glucose monitors (CGMS) should be subsidized. Unfortunately, that is not the case. People with T1D are rationing them, which makes diabetes management challenging. Plus high blood sugar levels and/or ketones hinder the ability to perform “normal” day to day activities.

Insulin is like water. Someone with T1D can not live without it, but medical insurance in India does not cover it, and not every type of insulin is subsidized. So for those with T1D and financial struggles, there are the worries about the price of life-giving insulin and medical supplies.

After considering these facts, let’s look at the definition of “person with a disability” under the Rights of People with Disabilities Act (RPWD) 2016 that was enacted after India ratified CRPWD: “a person with long term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairment which, in interaction with barriers, hinders his full and effective participation in society equally with others.”

“When it comes to legalities, the word “disability” is significant. Disability legislation considers people living with disabilities as subjects who possess rights capable of claiming that they have a disability – not those simply given charitable treatment.”

The sad part, however, is that T1D is not considered a disability under this Act, even though the current problems faced by people with T1D in India do “hinder (their) full and effective participation in society equally with others”. I’m arguing that you can not tell every T1D to live “normally” when the condition doesn’t always allow for it. The community is suffering silently and legislative action is being denied.

It is through the recognition of injustices and assertion of our rights that we can ensure equal opportunities. T1D advocacy is emerging in India and as a collective we are highlighting these issues. Change is happening. In 2020 in Kerala High Court, a public interest litigation was filed over the issue of including T1D in the list of disabilities and creating a national registry for people with T1D. This step is important. Recognition of T1D as a “disability” would obligate the government to fulfill what is laid down in the Act, for example providing affordable and accessible health care, ensuring the implementation of non-discrimination clauses and creating special faculties at educational institutions.

Seven years after that endo visit incident, even though I will never be able to deny that I am a patient, what I can do is advocate for patient rights. At a macro level this means standing up for the community. Recognition under the legislation of people with diabetes as those with disabilities is the first step, a chapter in the book of advocacy in my country of India.

What I Learned About Legislation and Action for the MA Chapter of #insulin4all

Last month, I wrote about how I decided to join my state’s chapter of #insulin4all because I’ve been upset about the high costs of insulin for awhile now, and I want to do anything I can to help make it more affordable…not just in Massachusetts but all across the U.S., and even in the world.

Our first meeting was introductory, but the second one focused on legislative action.

Truth be told, I wasn’t exactly stoked on this topic because, well, I don’t find law-making particularly interesting. I always imagine a bunch of stuffy middle-aged white men sitting in a room and arguing about section X of law Y and I’m sorry, but…yawn.

However, I was surprised by how much I took away from this meeting that recapped the current state of legislation and action for the MA chapter of #insulin4all. Here are my big takeaways:

  • There’s a lot that one person can do in order to help make legislative change. It goes beyond contacting local legislators – an individual who offers their time, resources, and voice can do so much by learning the legislative process, attending hearing or floor sessions, testifying, and acting as a resource to legislators. As a person with diabetes, I have stories and knowledge to share that can help legislators really understand what a person with diabetes experiences and needs…and that in itself is a powerful tool.
Access to insulin is a human right that, unfortunately, we have to fight for.
  • Attempts at change have been made…and tabled. One piece of legislation we talked about extensively during this meeting is Kevin’s Law, which is named for Kevin “Howdy” Houdeshell. He passed away in 2014 from rationing insulin, after he was unable to refill his prescription for insulin due to his prescription being expired and the unavailability of his doctor due to the New Year’s holiday. This law would allow for pharmacists to dispense a chronic maintenance drug such as insulin to a patient without a current prescription in limited circumstances. In Massachusetts, the bill was reported favorably by the senate committee last March, but tabled in July due to a variety of factors. On the bright side, a meeting has been scheduled with a recently elected representative who could help revitalize discussions of the bill, so we can be hopeful that change will be made.
  • Public production of insulin is one way to make it more affordable. So this is pretty neat: California is the first state to establish public production of “biosimilars” that include insulin. This article that I’m linking to explains it best, but basically, this just means that the state of California is getting into the generic drug business to prevent price gouging and fight back against big pharma. But what’s really cool and exciting to me is that Massachusetts may be just as capable (in other words, have just as much market power as California) to produce generic insulin, too. MassBiologics is a non-profit, FDA-licensed manufacturer of vaccines that could also potentially produce insulin. Though I did a quick search and couldn’t find much on the matter, it’s a fascinating concept that could make insulin much more affordable in Massachusetts.

And those are just a few of the key points we covered in the meeting. I left the Zoom session feeling so much more informed as to how legislation works in the state of Massachusetts, and the steps that I can take to make changes not just as an individual, but as someone working with a motivated and knowledgeable group like the MA chapter of #insulin4all.