Thought Leadership

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Is Diabetes a Disability or Chronic Condition?

August 28 2017 By Justene Smith

The painful and tragic death of kwaito artist Anthony Motaung, popularly known as Fatty Boom Boom or Tsekeleke, has highlighted the importance of gaining a greater understanding of Diabetes and its legislative status in South Africa.

Some 7% of South African adults aged between 21 and 79 (3.85 million people) have Diabetes. World statistics are just as concerning. According to the World Health Organisation, four times as many people have Type II Diabetes today compared to 36 years ago. In 1980, 108 million people were diagnosed with Diabetes worldwide. By 2014, the figure increased to a staggering 422 million. Globally, about 1.5 million people died as a direct result of Diabetes in 2012. 

Extensive research has been conducted into Diabetes and there is considerable information about the medical aspect of this condition, however, not much has been said from a legislative standpoint. Diabetes is a chronic illness, but does this make it a disability according to South African legislation?

Justene Smith, Disability Specialist at Progression Transformation Enablers (Progression), sheds some light on this. "   There is no list in place that stipulates if a condtion or illness is definitely a disability or not. This is partly because conditions are experienced differently from one person to the next. When determining whether a certain condition, like Diabetes, can be classified as a disability, we must turn to the Employment Equity Act."

According to the Employment Equity Act of South Africa, people with disabilities are those who have a long-term or recurring physical, including sensory, or mental impairment, which substantially limits their prospect of entry into or advancement in employment. This means for Diabetes to be classified as a disability under the Employment Equity Act, it needs to meet the requirements of the above definition.

Smith says, "Diabetes is a long term condition and falls within the first part of the definition. Secondly, Diabetes  can be considered a physical impairment, because this is defined as a total or partial loss of body part or function. Again, Diabetes meets the criteria for this part of the definition."

"In most cases, Diabetes can be managed by medication and diet and therefore, does not substantially limit a person's prospect of entry into or advancement in employment.  Generally Diabetes, if well managed,  would not be considered a disability as per the Employment Equity Act definition. "

"However, as stated above, people may experience their  conditiondifferently and Diabetes can present itself differently from person to person. We have seen a few cases where a diabetic person has been classified as a person with a disability. This is often the case when a person's Diabetes is unstable and  blood glucose levels fluctuate dramatically."

A young woman at an organisation that Progression partnered with had Diabetes, which resulted in highly erratic glucose control. Smith explains, "She could not manage her diabetes through medication and diet alone and relied on an insulin pump, a medical device that was fitted to her. As a result, she needed to go to the doctor on a regular basis to ensure that the device was working."

"When she experienced severe fluctuations in her insulin levels, she often felt tired, her immune system was weak and this made her susceptible to other illnesses more frequently. As a result, her workplace needed to accommodate her by allowing her to take leave to go to the doctor when needed and flexible working hours to manage her condition," says Smith.

In the above case, Diabetes can be considered a disability because it impacts on the person's ability to fulfill the inherent requirements of their job and may substantially limit his or her prospect of entry into or advancement in employment.

Additionally, Diabetes can result in other conditions which may be considered a disability, for example, long term poorly controlled Diabetes can often result in renal failure, glaucoma, strokes and lower limb amputation. It is important to note that in such cases, Diabetes would not be considered the disability, but would rather be the cause of other disabilities such as amputation or visual impairments.  

If you are unsure whether your condition meets the requirements of the definition of disability, we encourage you to speak to your HR department or contact Progression at


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