Corina Blixth, a Van Nuys resident, was excited at the prospect of attending a private vocational travel school. She had dreamed of working in the travel industry for years and found a school that prepared students to become airline ticket agents, travel agents, tour guides, hotel workers and flight attendants. It was exactly the course of study Blixth wanted to pursue.
When Blixth went to the school to take a tour and apply, she ran into several problems. While discussing financial aid, the school's admissions representative quizzed Blixth about her source of income. Blixth revealed that she received Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which prompted the admissions representative to respond with a series of very aggressive questions.
Blixth then told the admissions representative that she has a disability. After the admissions representative demanded to know the exact nature of Blixth's disability, Blixth reluctantly revealed that she is HIV-positive.
The admissions representative continued to pry, asking Blixth how she had contracted HIV. Later, while showing Blixth around the school, the representative pointed out another student's photograph and said, "He has what you have."
Corina Blixth was very dismayed by this encounter. She felt bad that the school's representative had quizzed her extensively, and that she had answered the questions. Although Blixth passed the school's entrance exam, she stopped the admission process.
Blixth contacted the HIV & AIDS Legal Services Alliance (HALSA). On Blixth's behalf, a volunteer attorney wrote a stern letter to the admissions representative, citing how the school had, in effect, violated Blixth's confidentiality as well as that of a student.
After doing additional research and considering other options, Blixth realized that there were things that this travel school offered courses that were not available in other programs. For this reason, Blixth decided to put her bad experience behind her and reinstate her application.
Blixth then encountered the same admissions representative that she had met earlier. According to Blixth, the representative was clearly upset that she had received a critical letter. The school representative demanded that Blixth write a letter to the school stating that Blixth is HIV-positive, and also asked for a letter from Blixth's doctor verifying that she was well enough to attend school.
Blixth wrote that she did not want to cause trouble, and only wished to be treated fairly, since she had a very strong desire to attend the school. Her statement did not disclose her HIV status.
Blixth then waited to hear about her application's outcome. During this time, the admissions representative claimed to be awaiting the admission committee's decision. At one point, the representative called Blixth and told her to get ready to come to orientation that evening, but to wait for a final, confirming telephone call. Blixth never received the call.
Nearly two months after Blixth's second application to the school, the admissions representative told Blixth that she had been rejected. When Blixth asked for a reason and for the name and telephone number of a school administrator, the representative refused.
Corina Blixth contacted HALSA again. On her behalf, a HALSA staff attorney wrote a letter to the founder and president of the school, pointing out how the admissions representative's conduct violated state and federal anti-discrimination law. While investigating Blixth's complaint, HALSA found that the school's admissions policy appeared to reserve the right to discriminate against applicants with disabilities.
Eventually, the school agreed to all of HALSA's demands. It admitted Corina Blixth and agreed to delete the seemingly discriminatory language from its admissions policy. The school also agreed to train staff on compliance with federal and state antidiscrimination laws.
With HALSA's help, Corina Blixth fought against discrimination and achieved a decision based on her academic abilities rather than her HIV status. Corina Blixth's experience presents an opportunity for other people with disabilities to learn how the law protects their rights. Do HIV-positive people have to reveal their status or submit a doctor's note in order to gain admission to a school? What laws cover these situations?
In general, admissions representatives should not ask questions about HIV status or any other disability, nor should a school's admission application require such information. A school may not refuse to admit an applicant because of the applicant's disability, or because an applicant is closely associated with a disabled person.
Once an applicant is admitted to a school, the school may require a health certificate or even a specific test, such as a TB test. But the school must impose these requirements equally on all students. The requested information or test has to be legitimately related to the course of study or activities in which the student is engaging.
It is extremely unlikely that any course of study or school activity would give rise to a school's legitimately asking about a student's HIV status. A school may offer services to disabled students and ask for specific information about a student's disability for statistical purposes, or in order to make sure that the student qualifies for services. Any decision to access services requiring disclosure of confidential medical information belongs to the student, not to the school. A student may choose not to apply for certain services in order maintain confidentiality. These are personal decisions that each individual should make for himself or herself.
The Americans with Disabilities Act is the federal law that prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of disability. In addition, schools receiving federal money in the form of financial aid payments must comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Schools receiving federal dollars are also under the jurisdiction of the Office of Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education. California Civil Code Section 51 offers similar protection at the state level.
School employees may not know what the law is or may not follow it. Inappropriate questions can crop up at any point during the interview and application process. Applicants should anticipate questions and decide in advance on strategies for handling those questions.
If you have questions, contact HALSA at (213) 201-1640 for more information.
In an effort to encourage constructive relations between the student and the school in the future, this article does not identify the school by name.
Barbara Dalton is an attorney in HIV Legal Check Up Project, a program of the HIV & AIDS Legal Services Alliance.