What to Do About Discrimination Because of HIV

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on December 12, 2022
4 min read

All too often, people with HIV become targets of judgment, when what they need is support and compassion. On top of creating health challenges, a diagnosis of HIV can affect your relationships with family and friends, your home life, and your job.

Some folks still wrongly believe that they can catch HIV through casual contact, such as sharing a drinking glass or touching a toilet seat. People may connect HIV and AIDS with behaviors they think are shameful, such as men having sex with men, or injecting drugs. They may believe that the illness is the result of a moral weakness or could have been avoided, so the person deserves to be punished -- and that's not fair or helpful.

Many federal, state, and local laws exist to protect your rights to work, education, and privacy. They also ensure access to information, treatment, and support.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it unlawful to discriminate based on disability. And HIV meets the definition of a disability under federal and state laws. That means you're protected from discrimination related to employment, housing, government services, and access to public areas.

It's discrimination if you're treated differently from other people simply because you're infected with HIV. For example, being HIV-positive shouldn't be the reason:

  • You're denied child custody or visitation.
  • An employer transfers you to a lesser job position.
  • You aren't accepted into a drug treatment center.

While an HIV diagnosis may be sufficient to be "disabled" under the ADA, it  may not be sufficient to qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance.  SSDI is funded through payroll taxes. Recipients must have worked for a certain number of years and have made contributions to the Social Security to qualify. How much you receive is based on your inability to work 

The ADA provides federal protection at work for people who are HIV-positive. It covers employees or people applying for a job with a company with 15 or more employees.

An employer can't demand a medical test before a job offer -- unless all people offered jobs must take the same test.

You can't be asked if you're HIV-positive until you've been offered a job. And the employer can't withdraw the offer unless your illness would prevent you from doing the job.

If you're qualified, an employer can't refuse to hire you based on your HIV status, unless it would pose a direct threat to other workers or the public. But this threat is very rare.

Your employer can't release information about your HIV status. It must be kept confidential.

Under the ADA, an employer may have to make changes to allow you to do your job. But not if it causes "undue hardship," such as financial strain on a small company.

Keep good written records of what happens to you at work. Stay calm and continue to do your job. If you think someone has crossed the line, contact a local HIV service organization to recommend an attorney, or go to www.aclu.org or www.nela.org.

The ADA and some local and state laws also protect against discrimination in health care. A doctor or other health care worker can't:

  • Refuse to treat you
  • Demand that you say whether or not you're HIV-positive

You can file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) if you have problems getting medical care. It enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination by health care and human services providers.

The Fair Housing Act, as well as state and local laws, protect people with disabilities -- including those who are HIV-positive -- against housing discrimination. A landlord can't:

  • Refuse to rent to someone who is HIV-positive
  • Harass a tenant with HIV
  • Evict an HIV-positive tenant except for reasons such as not paying the rent or breaking the lease

Contact a civil rights attorney or local legal assistance organization right away if you run into trouble.

Take care of yourself emotionally, too. Find people who understand what you're going through. Join a local HIV/AIDS support group or check online. Ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health professional or clinical social worker.

Search the internet for things like "HIV education referral" and "AIDS support services" or "social service organizations." You may find a hotline that offers practical advice or emotional support over the phone. Local HIV/AIDS organizations should have lots of information and perhaps partners who can help you, too.