The day my daughter started kindergarten, her teacher asked that she be transferred to another classroom. She thought my daughter posed a health threat to a classmate who was recovering from leukemia.
Our doctor had disclosed my daughter’s chronic hepatitis B infection on her school health form. I thought the school nurse would know my daughter posed no risk to students, who were nearly all immunized against hepatitis B and supervised by teachers trained in universal precautions.
I was wrong on many counts. The school nurse went along with the teacher’s recommendation. After heated discussions with the school principal that included providing copies of medical reports and civil rights laws, my daughter remained in the classroom and the school’s staff received training on universal precautions.
That happened 16 years ago. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had been enacted 10 years earlier and policy makers, health officials and the courts were still working out exactly how the landmark law would protect people with blood-borne infections such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.
Even though the ADA was a work in progress at the time, it still played a critical role in protecting my daughter’s right to an education without any restrictions, and that’s what I celebrate every July 4.
U.S. schools have historically been center stage for some of our worse acts of discrimination, beginning with racial segregation. But just as courts dismantled racial discrimination in schools, so, too, has it cleared the way for equal access to education for students with blood-borne infections.
In 1985, Indiana school officials refused to allow HIV-infected Ryan White to return to school because they feared he posed a health threat to other students. It took a team of lawyers and medical experts armed with research to show he posed no risk to fellow students.
Nearly 30 years later, some medical, nursing and dentistry schools in the U.S. were still denying admission to hepatitis B-infected applicants because they erroneously believed that these individuals posed a health threat to patients. In 2012, the Hepatitis B Foundation appealed for help from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to update its 1991 guidelines to make clear that hepatitis B-infected healthcare workers and students were no threat to patients, based on many advances in science and medicine.
These updated guidelines became the cornerstone of the U.S. Department of Justice’s successful legal action against a medical school, which clarified that hepatitis B was a protected condition under ADA (2013). The federal government also sent a letter to all U.S. schools threatening legal action if they continued their discriminatory policies toward hepatitis B-infected applicants and student.
On this July 4th, let us celebrate our civil rights laws that guarantee all Americans equal access to the education and careers of their choice. May these laws serve as a model to other countries, so no one will have their dreams diminished by unfounded fears of a liver infection that can be prevented by an effective vaccine and controlled by effective treatment.