The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is a civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination. The ADA considers HIV and AIDS to be disabilities that substantially hinder one or more life activities, regardless of whether or not a person has symptoms.
However, people with HIV or AIDS may or may not qualify to receive Social Security benefits, depending on the severity of their condition.
In this article, we discuss HIV and AIDS as disabilities in the context of discrimination and eligibility for Social Security benefits. We also provide information on other available benefits and resources.
The ADA defines disability as a condition that substantially interferes with one or more life activities. Examples of people’s life activities may include visible tasks such as caring for themselves and working.
Life activities under the ADA also include major bodily functions that are not visible, such as the functioning of the immune system. Since a person with HIV or AIDS has impaired immunity, the ADA considers the conditions to be disabilities even when people do not have symptoms.
The ADA offers protections from all discrimination in the workplace, including:
The ADA applies to private employers with at least 15 employees and public entities with any sized workforce.
The ADA’s protection extends beyond employment and includes safeguards from discriminatory practices in some other areas, known as public accommodations. For example, a dentist cannot refuse to treat a person with HIV or AIDS, and a health club cannot limit the hours an individual with HIV or AIDS can use the facilities.
Examples of entities where the ADA applies include:
- retail stores
- medical and dental offices
- health clubs
Many people that receive treatment for HIV can enjoy normal lives, including employment, notes the United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Most individuals can continue to work in their present job or look for another position in their chosen field.
The ADA requires employers to make adjustments or modifications in the working environment that enable people to perform the job’s essential functions. Essential functions are those that are crucial to job performance.
That means a person with HIV has the right to ask for reasonable accommodation in the workplace.
Not all people with HIV will need to make these requests, and some individuals may only need minimal workplace changes.
When a person with HIV requests a reasonable accommodation from their employer, they require a doctor’s note verifying the necessity for the request. Examples of workplace adjustments may include:
- a work schedule that allows time off for medical appointments
- permission to take short, frequent breaks
- a specific type of chair
The ADA considers HIV and AIDS a disability for everyone with one of the conditions, but the Social Security Administration (SSA) does not. Disability under the SSA means a person cannot work, making them eligible to receive a monthly income from the government.
According to the SSA requirements, people have a disability if their medical condition has prevented them from working for at least 12 months. They also qualify if doctors expect their condition to result in death.
Many people with HIV have physical impairments that make them unable to work. If they have had the impairments for 12 months, the SSA may rule that they have a disability.
However, some individuals with HIV either do not have symptoms or have less severe symptoms, which may result in the SSA concluding they do not have a disability. When the SSA assesses a person’s disability, they consider the person’s symptoms, signs, and lab test results documented in their medical records.
SSA disability benefits are not the only way a person who cannot work may be able to receive income. Some employers and private insurance companies offer long-term disability insurance, which pays 50–70% of the income someone had before they acquired a disability.
A person who shops for a policy in the private marketplace could ask:
- How does the policy define disability?
- What amount of money does the policy pay?
- How long do benefits last?
Aside from the programs above that provide a monthly income for people with HIV or AIDS, several other programs provide benefits that assist with healthcare costs. These include:
- Ryan White Program: The federal Ryan White Program works with states, cities, and local community-based organizations to offer health services to people with HIV or AIDS. To be eligible, people have to have a low or very low income. A person can find a program in their area using the search tool on this webpage.
- Medicaid: Medicaid is a state and federal program that is an important source of healthcare financial assistance for people with HIV or AIDS. Although all states provide specific areas of mandatory coverage, some states add optional benefits, such as coverage of prescription medications. Eligibility requirements vary between states.
- Medicare: Medicare is the federal health insurance program for people age 65 and older and younger individuals with certain disabilities. Coverage includes a portion of inpatient hospital care, outpatient care, and prescription drugs.
- Health Center Program: The Health Center Program offers primary and preventive health services to individuals regardless of their ability to pay. Services include testing and medical care for people with HIV. A person can find a center in their area with the search tool on this webpage.
- Veterans Administration: The Veterans Administration, which serves former military members, is the largest healthcare provider to people with HIV who live in the U.S. To learn more about what benefits are available, visit this website.
- finding a hotline for HIV and AIDS in each state
- locating HIV care services in a particular area
- searching for HIV specialists who are members of the American Academy of HIV Medicine
- estimating the cost of health coverage
- finding affordable housing
- obtaining employment guides
If someone experiences discrimination in the U.S., the ADA recommends that the person inform their manager about the protections the law offers people with a disability as a first step. If the manager does not comply, the next step involves seeking out community or public mediation services.
If the first two steps fail to produce the necessary changes, the third step is to file a complaint with the Department of Justice. An individual may file a complaint online or send a complaint to:
U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
4CON, 9th Floor
Washington, DC 20530
Additionally, a person could file a private lawsuit. However, in these cases, they are responsible for attorney fees.
The ADA defines HIV and AIDS as disabilities, which means people who have them are entitled to protection from discrimination in the workplace. This law also shields people with HIV and AIDS from discrimination in many public entities, such as hotels, retail stores, and dental offices.
To comply with the ADA, employers and managers of places of public accommodation must make reasonable changes to provide employment or services to these individuals.
The SSA also may consider someone with HIV or AIDS to have a disability, which qualifies them for benefits in the form of monthly income. People may also be eligible for assistance with healthcare costs from other programs, such as Medicaid and the Ryan White Program.
HIV and AIDS resources
For more in-depth information and resources on HIV and AIDS, visit our dedicated hub.