July 30, 2008
New York -- After pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Peace Corps has agreed that it will no longer terminate volunteers just because they have HIV. The ACLU demanded the policy change on behalf of a volunteer who was sent home from his post in the Ukraine and terminated after he tested positive for the disease.
"We are very pleased that the Peace Corps has acknowledged that it cannot legally terminate volunteers automatically merely because they test positive for HIV," said Rebecca Shore, a staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project. "But actions speak louder than words, so we're going to be keeping a close eye on the agency to make sure it lives up to its promises."
The ACLU sent a letter to the Peace Corps today acknowledging the new Peace Corps policy barring HIV discrimination, but making it clear that simply adopting a nondiscrimination policy is not enough. The letter notes that the agency is bound by the Rehabilitation Act, which bars the agency from discriminating against people with HIV and requires the agency to make accommodations for the special needs of those with the disease when necessary.
The ACLU demanded the change on behalf of Jeremiah Johnson, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rozdilna, Ukraine, where he taught English to middle and high school students. During a routine mid-service medical examination, he opted to take an HIV test which came back positive. After receiving the diagnosis, he was immediately sent back to Washington, D.C., given just two days to pack his bags and say goodbye to his students and other people he met while volunteering. Although further medical testing showed that Johnson had no health problems, he was told he could not finish his service in the Ukraine or elsewhere.
After Johnson made his story public, the ACLU heard from other volunteers who suffered similar discrimination. In 2001, Rebecca Coulborn was volunteering in Burkina Faso in West Africa. Just days after she tested positive for the disease, she too was shipped back to D.C. and kicked out of the Peace Corps.
"While I'm still disappointed that I didn't get to finish the projects I started in the Ukraine, getting the Peace Corps to acknowledge that volunteers with HIV shouldn't be discriminated against has helped to remind me why I chose to volunteer in the first place," said Johnson. "Things certainly didn't turn out the way I thought they would when I signed up, but at least I was able to do some good for future volunteers with HIV."
The new policy guarantees that the Peace Corps will not automatically terminate volunteers who test positive for the HIV. Rather, the agency will conduct an individual assessment of each volunteer who tests positive to determine what steps to take to protect the health of the volunteer while also allowing the volunteer to continue his or her service as required by the Rehabilitation Act when feasible. The Peace Corps has also given the ACLU assurances that it will communicate its new policy barring HIV discrimination in a prudent and appropriate manner.
Volunteers who feel they have been discriminated against by the Peace Corps because of their HIV status, are encouraged to contact the ACLU at: www.aclu.org/hiv.
A copy of the letter from the Peace Corps acknowledging the change in policy as well as the response by the ACLU is available at: www.aclu.org/hiv/discrim/34948res20080421.html.