A 13 year old boy from Pennsylvania is suing a private school for discrimination after it refused to admit him because of his HIV status. This case is drawing comparisons to the Ryan White case from the 1980’s. And while many people realize that this is a case of discrimination, other folks seem to think that this behavior by Milton Hershey School is acceptable because it is a private institution. Apparently, because it is a private school, people think that they get to do whatever they want. That simply is not the case. Private institutions do not have the right to discriminate against someone because of their health, even when they claim they are doing it for the health or safety of others. (HIV is not an easy-to-catch illness, despite what some ignorant people seem to persist in thinking.) Despite what they think, they do have to follow many standards that protect those with disabilities, including the ADA.
First of all, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exists to protect all people with disabilities. It exists to keep people from having their basic rights stripped away from them based on their disability. According to their website:
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gives federal civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, State and local government services, and telecommunications.
Before someone starts thinking that HIV cannot possibly be a disability, the ADA website goes even further to cover this:
Yes. An individual is considered to have a “disability” if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that
substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an
impairment. Persons with HIV disease, both symptomatic and asymptomatic, have physical impairments that substantially limit
one or more major life activities and are, therefore, protected by the law.
Persons who are discriminated against because they are regarded as being HIV-positive are also protected. For example, a person
who was fired on the basis of a rumor that he had AIDS, even if he did not, would be protected by the law.
Moreover, the ADA protects persons who are discriminated against because they have a known association or relationship with an
individual who is HIV-positive. For example, the ADA would protect an HIV-negative woman who was denied a job because her
roommate had AIDS.
And they also specify that this act covers “public accommodations” and a private school is considered to be a public accommodation, as are businesses, doctors offices, dentists offices, health clubs, museums, libraries, health clubs, and daycare centers. A public accommodation is specifically defined as “a private entity that owns, operates, leases, or leases to a place of public accommodation.” This means that a person who has any kind of disability is supposed to be given an equal opportunity.
Not only would this be covered under ADA, a disabled student is also covered under Section 504. Section 504 covers people with a variety of disabilities, including ones of the immune system. (HIV/AIDS are considered to be immune-related disorders because of their suppression of the immune system.) Section 504 and the Office of Civil Rights for the U.S. Department of Education govern not only public institutions, but private ones as well.
It disgusts me that people persist in thinking that it is okay to discriminate against people with HIV/AIDS. It also disgusts me that people think that schools can keep certain people from receiving an education because of their health status. (There are obviously some personal reasons for my frustration at schools that do this.) If we were talking about a disease or condition that only puts child in a wheelchair, then it would be obvious to all involved that this was a case of discrimination, but because of the persisting belief that you can catch HIV just by being around an infected person, there are still people who are willing to justify this kind of behavior. It shouldn’t have been justified in Ryan White’s case and it definitely shouldn’t be justified in this case.