Editor’s Note: Thanks to the initiative of Deborah Groeber, one of our indefatigable Development Department team members (pictured below with Senator Tom Harkin), ActionAIDS was proud to have participated with the event host organization, Liberty Resources, and other disability service and adovcacy organizations in this past weekend’s ADA 25 Celebration.


The Americans with Disabilities Act – among the most important civil rights laws passed by Congress – turned 25 on July 26, 2015. On Saturday, July 25, ActionAIDS joined our local ADA 25 Anniversary Celebration at Philadelphia City Hall, which involved dozens of disability advocacy organizations. Among the speakers was Senator Tom Harkin, the primary drafter of the ADA and a long-time advocate for people with disabilities.

The positive impact of the ADA on the lives of thousands of people with disabilities cannot be underestimated. The law imposed nondiscrimination standards in employment, as well as public services and public accommodations, resulting in ahuge change in making jobs, services, and social participation accessible for people with disabilities. Daily reminders of this important law are the street corner curb cuts and entrance ramps in place of stairs at commercial establishments, which accommodate people with mobility disabilities. But the law also protects people, such as those living with HIV, who have what are essentially “invisible” disabilities.

Congressional consideration of the ADA in 1990 involved a significant controversy regarding coverage for people living with HIV or AIDS. Before its final approval by Congress, an amendment to the ADA was introduced to allow employers to ban people with an “infectious or communicable disease” from working jobs involving the handling of food. This amendment was introduced specifically to address concerns of restaurant owners and other employers about employing people with HIV in food service jobs, despite the fact that there was no evidence that food or beverages could transmit HIV.

Nevertheless, this amendment was approved in the House of Representatives, and its inclusion in the final version of the law threatened to derail its adoption. However, advocates for people with disabilities other than HIV joined with HIV advocates in opposing the food-handler amendment, and a substitute compromise amendment was adopted. That compromise required the Secretary of Health and Human Services to publish a public list annually of all diseases that are transmitted by the food supply. Of course, HIV or AIDS have never been included on that list and thus are not excludable from food preparation jobs. The attempt to write a provision into the ADA based on unfounded fear of HIV was thus defeated by a broad coalition of disability advocates – an early success in opposing HIV stigma.

Although the history of the ADA’s adoption in Congress strongly supports the view that HIV is a disability protected under the law, during the early years of the ADA, the law’s reception in the courts as protecting people living with HIV was rocky. Some judges used highly technical readings of the law, with the result that it was difficult if not impossible for people living with HIV to pursue claims of illegal discrimination. These court rulings were repudiated by the adoption of the ADA Amendments Act in 2008, which clarified that HIV is a disability under the ADA.  Today, there is no question that people living with HIV are included under the disability definition of the ADA, and thus can claim its protection the same as people living with any other disability.

–David W. Webber, Senior Development Specialist, ActionAIDS