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Aaron went to work and was greeted by the sign: AIDS BOY GET ANOTHER JOB. After Mary’s landlord learned she has AIDS, she was forced to live in her car. Scheduled for shoulder surgery, James was refused when his surgeon found out he has HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. These three stories were not found in dusty files from the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Incredibly, they all happened during the last few weeks in Pennsylvania. I know, because I run the nation’s only freestanding public interest law firm representing people with HIV/AIDS. For 15 years, the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania has been on the front lines fighting AIDS discrimination and stigma through direct representation and public policy advocacy. We’ve come a long way from the cramped Chinatown office that was our home when I joined as a volunteer 11 years ago. We are now a staff of 14, operating from ample quarters at 1211 Chestnut St., and we have provided free legal services to more than 20,000 Pennsylvanians. And the fight continues. From across the commonwealth, we hear from 1,800 people a year. Our clients have experienced hatred and bias from all areas of society. Much of it stems from ignorance and fear — fear of getting AIDS and of what it may say about the person who has AIDS. As we enter the third decade of AIDS, statistics show that more people now live with AIDS than have died from it. Since 1985 in Pennsylvania, 14,072 people have died from AIDS, and another 14,307 are living with it. In the Philadelphia region alone, an estimated 25,000 people are living with HIV or already have developed AIDS. Aaron found a maintenance job in the food court of a Bucks County shopping mall. He was uncomfortable disclosing that he has AIDS, but he wanted to be honest on his application form. In the first week, he got along fine with everyone. Then things began to change. People started staring, pointing and talking about him. By the second week, his co-workers had placed that hateful sign in his locker. Our mission at the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania is to seek justice for those who have been treated unfairly, and to educate the public so that the same type of harm won’t be repeated. Change will occur only when we as a society no longer fear AIDS. Only when people with AIDS are treated fairly and humanely will they feel safe to seek care, treatment and AIDS-prevention information. December 1st is World AIDS Day. This year’s theme is stigma and discrimination, which the Centers for Disease Control recently identified as significant factors in the spread of AIDS. Mary was desperate for a place to live in Columbia County. All she had was her dog and a few belongings that fit in her car. A landlord allowed her to move in if she got rid of the dog, so Mary had to give her dog away. Then the landlord learned Mary has AIDS. He refused to give her the apartment key. Now Mary is living in her car again, alone. The new face of AIDS reaches across neighborhoods, races, genders and age groups. According to the Philadelphia Health Department, in the 12 months leading up to March of this year, almost one-third of Philadelphia’s AIDS cases were female. More than two-thirds of the people living with AIDS in Philadelphia are black or Latino. Almost half of the AIDS cases are heterosexuals. And growing older doesn’t offer any protection: Almost 10 percent of the AIDS cases are age 50 or older. While the faces change, the stories remain the same. People with AIDS still struggle to keep their lives together while encountering bigotry and prejudice. Attitudes like those of Aaron’s co-workers, Mary’s landlord and James’ doctor are not rare. James was laid off from his job at an airport in Washington County. While looking for work, he damaged his shoulder. His HIV specialist referred him to a surgeon, who scheduled the operation for a week later because the need was acute and James had only a week left on his employer-provided health insurance. But after reading the medical records, the surgeon abruptly called James, berated him for not disclosing his HIV status during the office visit and refused to perform the surgery. James’s health insurance expired three days later. The AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania provides more than direct legal services. We train thousands of case managers, physicians, nurses, social workers and government officials each year on the rights and legal protections of people with HIV/AIDS. We produce publications including AIDS and The Law: Your Rights in Pennsylvaniaand The HIV/AIDS Public Benefits Advocacy Manual, distributed through organizations serving people with AIDS. We conduct three educational seminars each month in Center City. These seminars are free and open to the public. Leaving Your Jobhelps people with HIV/AIDS who are thinking about leaving a job and need specific information to make that transition . Back to Workdeals with attempting to work while receiving Social Security benefits, keeping Medicaid and Medicare, and returning to public benefits in the event of poor health. Recognizing that poor health can ruin a person’s financial well-being, Debt Managementprovides a range of options for handling debt. We rely on lawyers from the private sector to help us with pro bono representation of our clients, and we seek your financial support as well. But we also ask for something else. We want you to be thoroughly educated about AIDS, and then to educate others about how AIDS is transmitted — and to clearly state that people with AIDS present no risk in the workplace, at the doctor’s office or in the neighborhood. We want you to share accurate information, and to challenge bad information and AIDS phobia wherever you encounter it — at your job, at your family dinner table or out with your friends. Aaron, Mary and James are not fictional characters, but real Pennsylvanians struggling to move forward with their lives. Please give us as call at (215) 587-9377. Check out our Web site at www.aidslawpa.org. I welcome you to join the fight against ignorance and discrimination. Having AIDS is tough enough. Finding justice shouldn’t be. RONDA B. GOLDFEIN is the executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at [email protected].

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