three decades she’s had the disease.
She would have happily answered any
questions and performed any tests they
wanted—and did just that during her
four-month training, which included
“This is 2011. This condition is not in
the closet,” she says.
Katie Ostler, a spokeswoman for
the Canadian Diabetes Association of
Alberta and the Northwest Territories,
says discrimination against those with
diabetes is common. Many people
do not fully understand the disease,
making it difficult for those with
diabetes to get a driver’s licence, a job or
As with MacEachern’s potential boss,
some employers believe those with
the disease could suddenly collapse
from hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Yet such a situation is quite rare.
Furthermore, hypoglycemia symptoms
occur gradually and can be easily
reversed by eating carbohydrates.
The Canadian Diabetes Association
says everyone with diabetes needs to
be medically assessed individually, to
prevent blanket assumptions.
Cole’s and MacEachern’s experiences
are very familiar to Sherri Connell. She
was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis
in 1991 and Lyme disease in 1992 and
now has multiple chemical sensitivities
and food allergies. Like Cole and
MacEachern, Connell looks normal—“as
beautiful as ever,” says her husband
Wayne—and that’s where the social
isolation starts. People don’t understand
how someone can look fine but be so
Out of frustration at being shunned
and misunderstood by former friends,
Sherri told her husband it was like
she had “an invisible disease.” Wayne
used the term to create a charity, the
Invisible Disabilities Association
(based in Colorado), to raise funds to
battle the stigmatizing of people with
diseases that aren’t obvious. The couple
also uses social media and a website—
invisibledisabilities.org—as ways for
people to share their stories and know
they’re not suffering alone.
Whatever disease someone has, it will
always be easier for them to cope with
it when they know they have a circle of
friends around them, even if they don’t
see them very often, says Wayne. Just
being believed is a big step, because
their struggles are hard to see.
Dr. Michael Trew, the senior medical
director of Addiction and Mental Health
at Alberta Health Services, says the
same discrimination was once visited
upon cancer patients, but widespread
education and understanding have
helped reduce the disease's stigma.
“If people had cancer, the
presumption was they couldn’t work,
couldn’t find a job. They had trouble
Cancer has come a long way, but
mental health has not, Trew says. Even
in routine, daily encounters, people can
be nervous about diseases they don’t
“The best way to help them is often to
be less frightened.”
As a psychiatrist, he’s concerned
about encouraging people to do as much
as they can within the limits of their
disease. He says: “We usually think of
ourselves as what we do. People with
chronic conditions have to come to
understand that their ’being’ is beyond
It only makes matters worse if people
don’t understand the disease, he says.
Some progress has been made. Police
forces and health-care workers, for
example, are getting more training to
deal with people who are mentally ill.
But for society at large, when it comes to
mental illness, Trew struggles to think
of where walls of misunderstanding
have come down.
“It’s often something that has to be
learned by each person individually,”
Trew says. “Often the automatic
response is fear, but that can be
balanced by knowledge.”
Other diseases can evoke similar
uninformed views. A person with
Huntington's disease, which affects
coordination, can appear drunk to the
uninformed. Someone with bipolar
disorder can come across like a raging
maniac. Someone who’s been sexually
abused may be blamed because “they
were asking for it.” Or those who
are overweight can be viewed as
slovenly and unconcerned about their
He encourages people who know
someone with a chronic disease
to spend a few moments learning
about their condition. A one-on-one conversation can make a big
difference—starting with the desire of
one friend to learn a little bit more about
the other. It’s what friends do.
For more information about living with chronic
disease, visit the Better Choices, Better healthtm
pages on the ahS website (albertahealthservices.
ca). this free, six-week workshop is aimed at
helping albertans with chronic disease and their
caregivers manage their illness. an important part
of the program is learning to communicate with care
providers, friends and family about the impact of a
chronic condition on daily life.