Thursday, August 07, 2008

Beyond Barriers: Disability and HIV/AIDS

August 6, 2008, Mexico City--Over the past 25 years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, there has been a lot of attention paid to the development of sexuality education and services for people living with AIDS, as well on the factors that put certain groups at higher risk of contracting the virus. But what happens when a group of people is excluded from such programs, or experience compounded discrimination that puts them at even higher risk?

This was the subject of a panel discussion this afternoon called “Beyond Barriers: Disability and HIV/AIDS”. The panel featured studies from across the world – Brazil, South Africa, Cameroon, and Canada – and found that people with disabilities consistently experience higher vulnerability of infection. A study from Brazil – the first national study of its kind – found that mentally disabled people are often exposed to riskier situations; women in particular experience more unprotected sex than the general population, often as a result of sexual violence. A researcher in Kwa Zulu-Natal, where there is no disability-specific sex education, encountered a “let sleeping dogs lie” attitude in schools. As a result, she found that children with disabilities had little access to education or legal protection and were more vulnerable to abuse and infection. In Cameroon, a study focused on a young deaf population, found that sexual debut was on the whole earlier and riskier than in the general population.

The parallels between the studies were striking; however, a second researcher from Brazil who focused specifically on adolescents reminded the audience that people with disabilities also deal with all the factors of the general population: coming of age, culture, and gender. The communities examined by the disability rights movement must also consider the heterogeneity within the population and consider the diversity of challenges they face.


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (“CRPD”) entered into force on May 3, 2008. One of only seven international human rights treaties to enter into force in the 60 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the CRPD did not create a new set of rights; rather, it acknowledges and clarifies the existing rights of persons with disabilities. The CRPD states that disability is an “evolving concept” that “results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” The CRPD acknowledges the special discrimination connected with disability but also explains that discrimination on the basis of disability interacts with and magnifies other forms of discrimination. The interaction of disability and HIV/AIDS will be only one of these focuses.

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