July 13 was the first anniversary of the release of the landmark National HIV/AIDS Strategy, the first comprehensive government plan to outline the future of the fight against HIV/AIDS. To mark the occasion alongside the upcoming 21st anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) later this month, the Justice Department has launched a new section of its ADA website. The intersection of HIV/AIDS with disability issues is two-fold:
— People living with HIV or AIDS are covered by the ADA, which gives federal civil rights protections to persons with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, and state and local government services. The ADA recognizes that HIV and AIDS affect many aspects of people’s lives, regardless of whether they are currently on HIV medication or living with AIDS. In fact, the 1998 court decision holding that the ADA applies also to people living with HIV who are asymptomatic was in response to a case of discrimination by a doctor motivated by stigma around a patient’s HIV-positive status. — There are over 1.1 million people living with HIV in the U.S. today, and more than 56,000 new infections are reported each year. Anyone can get HIV, including people of any race or ethnicity; young and old; rich and poor; straight, lesbian, gay or bisexual; transgender or not — and people with physical, intellectual, sensory, or mental health disabilities. Currently, very little is known about HIV and AIDS among people with disabilities. But the many physical and financial barriers that often prevent people with disabilities from accessing general health care, let alone sexual and reproductive health services, including HIV prevention and treatment services, means that the HIV epidemic may be taking a disproportionate but largely invisible toll among people with disabilities.
The vision for the National HIV/AIDS Strategy is that “the United States will become a place where new HIV infections are rare and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.” As we approach the anniversary of the ADA, we should remember that people with HIV are more than just a protected group under the law — they are also members of every community and people from every kind of background, including people with disabilities.