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Accommodating diabetes

On the surface, it looks like a simple story: A mean bus driver mistreats and humiliates a girl with diabetes, someone whose well-being he is supposed to look out for. And as the details of the story make clear, there is no acceptable explanation for the driver’s behavior in this situation. But nevertheless, the incident raises questions about what a more respectful bus driver should have done, and what is generally the right thing to do when someone with a health condition requests an accommodation — especially when that accommodation inconveniences other people.

The story itself is rage-inducing. As reported by KTUU, an Anchorage, Alaska, NBC affiliate, a high school freshman named Hannah — who has Type 1 diabetes — was waiting for the bus to show up after school when she checked her blood glucose and got a reading of 35 mg/dl (dangerously low). Realizing that she didn’t have any fast-acting carbohydrates on her, she asked a friend to run inside to the school and grab a juice drink to bring back to her. While the friend was inside, the bus arrived, and Hannah called her mother to explain the situation. Hannah’s mother asked to speak to the bus driver to explain the situation to him and ask him to wait for Hannah’s friend. The bus driver refused, yelling at Hannah to move away from the bus’s door, that he needed to leave and that he couldn’t talk on the phone while driving. Upon hearing that she had diabetes and that a friend had run inside to grab a juice, he yelled, “Why didn’t you take care of that before now? We have to leave.”

When Hannah continued to beg the driver to wait — with panic rising in her voice — he started mocking her, yelling, “Oooh, we have a medical emergency, call 411, call 411.” Hannah’s mother heard the entire encounter over the phone. By this point, other students had offered Hannah a Dr. Pepper soft drink and some candy, which she accepted, but she was still waiting for her friend to return. An assistant principal arrived to try to assess the situation and was also yelled at by the bus driver, and then the school nurse arrived and pulled Hannah off the bus, which then left without her.

According to this account by Hannah’s mother, which she originally posted on Facebook, the bus driver’s behavior was unquestionably, shockingly mean and disgusting. But the question remains: What should a bus driver do in such a situation? Clearly the answer is not to mock and belittle Hannah. But it’s not clear than waiting indefinitely for Hannah’s friend to return was the right thing to do, either — there was, after all, a schedule to keep and parents who were counting on their kids being taken home. Perhaps a school bus is indeed a special case, but would anyone expect an airline pilot to hold a flight in a similar situation, while a passenger with diabetes waits for her friend to return from buying juice in the airport? Here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we’ve often discussed other situations in which accommodations were refused for people with diabetes — but in most of these cases, an accommodation wouldn’t have inconvenienced anyone else. One could make the argument that in this case, Hannah should have been prepared by having juice boxes on her, and upon realizing she didn’t have any, she should have stayed behind and found a different way to get home.

What do you think — is it reasonable or unreasonable to expect a bus (or plane, or boat) to wait for someone who is experiencing hypoglycemia (low blood glucose)? What about another health condition, such as an asthma attack? Is there a difference between stopping a vehicle because of a passenger’s medical condition, and delaying the vehicle’s departure in the first place? Does the severity or inconvenience of the medical condition matter — for example, should a bus wait for someone who is treating hypoglycemia, but not for someone recovering from a heart attack? Leave a comment below!

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