Courtesy of Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Division of Medicine and Science
When Sidney Abbott went to a dental appointment on September 16, 1994, she had no way of knowing that her visit would become a defining moment in the struggle against discrimination on the basis of HIV/AIDS. Upon arriving at the dentist's office, Ms. Abbott disclosed that she was HIV positive and that her condition was asymptomatic. The dentist examined Ms. Abbott, but, upon finding a cavity, he refused to treat her because of her HIV status.
Frustrated by this injustice, Ms. Abbott filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that she had been discriminated against in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—a federal law passed in 1990 that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. After a series of appeals, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Ms. Abbott's case, marking the first time that the highest court would rule on an ADA case involving a person with HIV. On June 25, 1998, the Supreme Court held in Bragdon v. Abbott that an individual who is HIV positive but asymptomatic, like Ms. Abbott, has a disability within the meaning of the ADA and is entitled to the protections of the statute.
This landmark ruling helps protect the more than one million people estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS in the United States. The Court's ruling is also critical because advances in medical treatment have resulted in people with HIV/AIDS living longer and more active lives, often for years without showing symptoms of the virus, thus increasing the number of people who can benefit from the ADA's protections.
In 2008, Congress amended the ADA, making it easier for people with HIV/AIDS to demonstrate that they are persons with disabilities who are covered by the statute. Specifically, under the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, people with HIV/AIDS can demonstrate that they are disabled simply by showing that their unmedicated HIV/AIDS substantially limits the functions of their immune system.
Ms. Abbott's courage and perseverance, along with Congress' and the Justice Department's efforts, affirm that those with HIV/AIDS have the right to live free of stigma and discrimination.