Last week’s announcement of Dr. Regina Benjamin as President Obama’s nominee for Surgeon General and the new fact sheet issued by the Department of Justice telling state licensing boards and occupational training schools that it is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act to bar people with HIV from such professions as massage therapy and home health care assistance, signals the beginning of the Obama Administration’s renewed focus on the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS.
HIV is considered a disability under the ADA, so any state licensing agencies or trade schools that bar people with HIV are in violation of federal law. According to the new DOJ fact sheet, it is safe for people with HIV to work in these professions because there is no real risk of HIV transmission in these settings. DOJ issued the fact sheet after HIV advocacy groups provided DOJ with many recent examples of people with HIV facing discrimination from state licensing boards and training schools, including cases of massage licenses being revoked, cosmetology students being expelled, and the revocation of foster parent licenses. “The DOJ has sent a loud and clear message to the state licensing boards and occupational training schools that HIV discrimination won’t be tolerated,” said Catherine Hanssens, Executive Director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy.
Presuming Dr. Benjamin is confirmed as Surgeon General, many HIV advocates hope her personal history will continue the Obama Administration’s renewed efforts at educating the public about the prevention and transmission of the disease. Dr. Benjamin lost a brother to complications from HIV/AIDS and has spoken publicly about the need for more robust education efforts.
According to Rose Saxe, a staff attorney with the ACLU AIDS project, public misperception of the disease remains among the top challenges facing advocacy groups, and often fuels persistent discrimination against those with the disease. “For far too long state licensing boards all over the country have been allowed to wreck havoc on the lives of people with HIV out of ignorance about how HIV is spread. We’ve known for years that you cannot get HIV through a hair cut or a massage, yet state laws have kept many people from these professions.”
With this kind of renewed attention to the disease, including battling misperceptions about those affected by it, many advocates hope to stem the recent uptick in diagnosed cases. At a minimum the steps taken by DOJ bring us closer to removing the stigma associated with the disease, putting those infected in the same light as others suffering from chronic, terminal conditions.
photo courtesy of thomaswanhoff via Flickr