Education vs. Outrage : Fighting everyday HIV stigma

 by Alyssa Draffin, LCSW

“Are there any precautions I need to warn my driver about?” asked the woman who runs a food delivery program for low income residents. I’d recently set up a service similar to meals on wheels for one of my clients. “Like what?” I asked, genuinely puzzled. The client in question was a woman in her mid-sixties who could probably be blown over by a strong wind. “Well, she said she has HIV, so I’m wondering if my driver should take any precautions while delivering food."  I hesitated, “I highly doubt the driver would come into contact with her bodily fluids, right?” I said. “Well, saliva though." she said. I felt myself go bug-eyed on the end of the line. I found myself tangentially saying “No studies have proven saliva as a mode of transmission for HIV and even if it were possible, no one could produce saliva in enough quantities to transmit HIV and ….” My words trailed off. “Wait..." I asked. "How would the driver be exposed to her saliva anyway?” “Oh, I don’t know….” she said sheepishly, "I just wanted to make sure.” 

Make sure of what? The implications offended me. I wanted to say, you own a Hazmat suit right? Make sure to wear a breathing mask and for the love of god- avoid ALL EYE CONTACT! But alas, I am a professional.  I kindly told her not to worry about her driver, as HIV could not be spread through food delivery. I also offered to provide her with a few helpful websites to reference if she were interested. At the end of the conversation, I shared with her that I was concerned about how my client would feel if the people delivering her food treated her as a contagion. She assured me the drivers have no knowledge of the client’s diagnosis.

This sort of interaction happens often, even with human service workers and health care providers. It reminds me that people continue to embrace myths about HIV despite the wealth of education available. Situations like these make me want to drag out my soapbox, puff out my chest and say “I am appalled because your ignorance perpetuates the oppression and stigma of those living with HIV!”, but I don't. It’s just not effective. Assuming good intentions is difficult when you are passionate about something, but in this case I have to understand that not everyone has been exposed to this information.

Fortunately, most HIV social workers have to operate in a bubble of sensitivity. We are witness to the complexities of disclosure and avoidance. We help with bereavement of the life before the diagnosis and work to embrace a new one. Unfortunately, we don’t always think to educate colleagues in the process or have the guts to correct them if they say something stigmatizing. The bubble we operate in seems to encourage the unrealistic assumption that others see through the same lens as us. 

It’s easy to get annoyed, but where does that get us? So, in the spirit of social work, I am challenging myself to reframe my thoughts when I come across someone who whether accidentally or purposely reinforces HIV stigma. I will look at it as an opportunity to educate, as I would hope someone would take the time to educate me. One less brick in the wall of HIV shame.

aids-prevention-1174714Alyssa Draffin, LCSW, is the Lead Social Worker at the UNC Infectious Diseases Clinic in Chapel Hill, NC. She serves adults living with HIV and provides psychotherapy and case management. She is a W.I.L.L.O.W. facilitator, a member of NCSCSW and a field instructor for UNC School of Social work.

*W.I.L.L.O.W. is a CDC developed intervention that stands for Women Involved in Life Learning for Other Women. It’s an education empowerment series that helps prevent HIV infection and reinforces gender pride.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by the NCSCSW

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