In October, I attended the annual U.S. Conference on AIDS, the largest HIV/AIDS-related gathering in the nation. Now in its eighteenth year, the goal of this conference has remained steadfast since the start: to increase and strengthen the diversity of the nation’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic through education, training and collaboration.
What has evolved since the conference’s early days is the nature of the education and collaboration needed to achieve this goal. Thanks to major treatment advances in recent years, the conversation has expanded to focus on the whole person, not just the medical condition. We are now able to look at HIV/AIDS more broadly—and, in addition to housing, employment is increasingly part of the picture.
Today, more and more people with HIV/AIDS are living healthy lives and can and want to work—and research clearly demonstrates the benefits of doing so. Employment is a key social determinant of health; it offers purpose and the opportunity to live an independent, self-directed life. It also reduces reliance on publicly funded programs, whether benefits or other services. But, for a number of complex reasons, including stigma and discrimination, many people with HIV/AIDS have not had equal access to employment and training opportunities.
That’s why we in the Office of Disability Employment Policy were pleased to partner with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of HIV/AIDS Housing to develop a new training curriculum for HIV/AIDS service providers, including housing providers, focused on employment. Titled Getting to Work, this multimedia course provides proven strategies for incorporating employment into the HIV/AIDS service menu and was developed with input from community organization leaders across the country.
The value of these organizations’ work is clear in the individual stories of those they serve, many of whom are facing other access barriers. Just one example is Beverly, an African American, transgender, HIV-positive woman in her fifties who contacted the Cascade AIDS Project (CAP), one of the partner organizations highlighted in Getting to Work, for assistance finding housing and employment after being released from incarceration and moving across the country. Beverly had not worked for 17 years. During this time, she also had experienced difficulty accessing needed services, both medical and non-medical. Connecting with CAP was a major turning point in her life.
Through CAP’s “Working Choices” employment initiative, which the organization started in 2011, Beverly learned about the options available to her and developed a realistic roadmap. The first step was an adult basic education program at Portland Community College, where she signed up for GED preparation classes. Working Choices then provided ongoing support, drawing on federal, state and community resources to address her needs holistically. She continued to take steps forward, including securing housing, legally changing her name and gender, and working with a vocational rehabilitation counselor to develop new job skills. Today she holds a part-time job as a janitor while working toward her GED.
Most important, Beverly now envisions for herself a positive future, one in which she takes care of her health and advances her opportunities through education and employment. Through Getting to Work, we endeavor to assist more HIV/AIDS service providers to help more people do the same.
On Dec. 1, the Department of Labor joins others around the world in commemorating World AIDS Day, a day dedicated to remembering the millions of lives lost over the course of the epidemic, taking stock of our progress, and educating one another about the steps we can take, together. Our collective efforts to eliminate discrimination and improve employment opportunities for people living with HIV/AIDS will play a crucial role in improving the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS today, and will also play a pivotal role in creating the AIDS-free generation of the future.
To quote Eric Ciasullo, a former board member of the National Working Positive Coalition, one of the department’s alliance partners, “The first 15 years of the epidemic were about dying – first quickly, then a little more slowly, but it was all about dying. The next five years were about not dying… It’s my hope and belief that the next era of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is about living, really learning to live fully, with HIV.”
Dylan Orr is chief of staff for the Office of Disability Employment Policy.