Unfortunately, society has a habit of equating disability with being less human. This often leaves people with disabilities voiceless in situations where they desperately need to be heard. We know that being in a wheelchair doesn’t always mean you can’t enjoy the natural pleasures of life, or that you experience different desires than anybody else. Regrettably, the public can sometimes be ignorant about that. And this ignorance can have dire consequences for the well-being of people with disabilities and progress against ableism.
One of the specific consequences in these situations is the increased risk of HIV throughout the disabled community. Education is everything, both for those who are disabled and those who are not. So let’s start here: what are the facts regarding HIV and the disabled community?
You’ve probably heard a lot about HIV and AIDS. In case you’re unaware of the specifics, Priority STD Testing defines them as:
“HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a serious sexually transmitted infection. It is an STD that causes damage to specific cells necessary for a healthy immune system. These cells are known as CD4 cells or T cells. By reducing your number of T cells present in body, your immune system is weakened, making it difficult for your body to fend off illness. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the final stages of this process, when you have developed rare infections or your T cell count has become very low.”
With that said, it’s important for us to recognize that evidence points toward people with disabilities facing a higher risk of HIV than the average person. Now, the factors that lead a non-disabled person to contract HIV are generally the same as those that affect a person who is disabled. However, the latter may be more susceptible to harm from these factors, or at least have a smaller amount of resources in reach to help them with it. Why is this, though?
You may be wondering. “How are those that are disabled more sensitive to the factors surrounding HIV?” Good question, and we need to tackle this on two fronts: that of biology and that of resources.
The biology level is very subjective and is to be examined on a case-by-case basis. See, it all depends on a person’s disability. For instance, we know that not all people in wheelchairs have disabilities that destroy their immune system — but some do. These people need to be especially careful with their sex lives because any sexually transmitted disease — including HIV — that depletes their immune system will become the second force working against them in such a way.
All of this stated, the resources and efforts for those that are disabled to fight the spread of STDs can sometimes be limited. This comes down to a misunderstanding about people that are disabled and the things that cause the spread of HIV — particularly sex, but not only.
Mike Scarlet for Mosaic Science disputed some of these understandings from able-bodied folk in a video from 2015. “The truth is that most people who are disabled will go out and meet people, have a relationship, just like anyone else,” Scarlet says in the video. He went on to dispute claims that those with disabilities only like or can enjoy “kinky” sex, sex with prostitutes, or dislike sex with able-bodied people. If society attributed the sexual desires and practices of disabled folk the way they would for an able-bodied person, they may do better to set the course for eliminating the number of people with disabilities that end up with HIV.
There’s another way, however, that HIV can be spread, and that’s through needles. While this has happened on historical occasion through blood transfusions, keep in mind that addiction to drugs like heroin isn’t a foreign topic to the disabled community. This is primarily due to how such drugs may affect one’s brain similarly to doctor-prescribed opioids.
While the United States already struggles to help able-bodied people to practice and be knowledgeable of safe sex and to avoid addiction, disabled people can be left in an even worse situation just by not being thought about when it comes to sex education. When the disabled community is left out of conversations, they are put more at risk because, again, education is everything. Not only is proper and continued HIV education necessary, but prevention tactics should be taught as well.
What to Do?
From history, we know that human nature leads to people rarely searching for help themselves, which means that we have to bring help to them. Education surrounding STDs and even addiction is a must in classrooms, of course. But the statistics regarding the disabled community and how they relate to this issue tells us that the education may not be reaching that community so strongly. At the very least, those with disabilities that affect the immune system need to know the extra harm HIV can cause to them. This is not for the purpose of singling anyone out but simply for the purpose of decreasing the knowledge gap and ridding the world of this epidemic.
Education isn’t enough, however. Action needs to be taken. 50% of sexually active youths are statistically going to catch an STD before they’re halfway through their twenties, so for the sake of humans with and without disabilities alike, society and the government can start by making STD testing and contraceptives more widely available. These should be available at bars and across college campuses (not just nurse’s offices), sure. But additionally, doctor’s offices and other doc-in-a-box, primary health-type clinics should be carrying condoms as well. Free testing can be done at places like Planned Parenthood, but due to stigmas around the organization, clinics are often chosen instead. In this case, these clinics need to be more in number and spread out across cities as we know it.
Maybe for you, learning will start here. If so, that’s great! How do you think we can better educate our friends and family that are disabled about the risk of HIV and STDs? Give us your suggestions in the comments below!
Image credit: https://www.pexels.com/photo/grayscale-photo-of-wheelchair-927690/