Thursday, February 3, 2011

Uphold the legacy of Ryan White

June 26, 2009
Section: homepage

COLUMN - Uphold the legacy of Ryan White
Community Advisory Board
Many people recognize the havoc HIV/AIDS is causing in Africa, but don't realize how prevalent the disease still is in the United States.
Our HIV/AIDS population is ranked 10th worldwide. It is estimated that more than 1.2 million people are living with HIV. More than 500,000 people have died from AIDS in this country alone. When AIDS appeared in the early 1980s, stigma surrounded those infected with the disease. HIV/AIDS was seen by some as a punishment from God on the gay community, and as a result, the government was slow to help. HIV/AIDS for a time was even officially called "Gay Related Immune Deficiency," or GRID. Many people with AIDS were ostracized. One such individual was Ryan White, an Indiana teenager and hemophiliac. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 at age 13. He received AIDS through a transfusion to treat his hemophilia. Many who lived in his town of Kokomo reacted with fear and even hatred. Ryan had to fight in the courts to be allowed back in school. The legal battle lasted eight months and attracted worldwide attention, causing Ryan to become a poster boy for the AIDS crisis. When he moved to Cicero, Ind., a program was implemented that educated students about how AIDS was (and wasn't) transmitted. The reaction of many in Cicero was different from in Kokomo; Ryan felt accepted. Ryan's story demonstrates the importance of fighting prejudice, fear and misinformation with education. Ryan went on to speak publicly about living with AIDS, appearing on television and testifying before President Reagan's AIDS Commission. Ryan gave AIDS a face that people could accept, and in turn Americans recognized that both action and education were necessary to fight AIDS. Ryan fought both for his life and for acceptance, and entered the national consciousness. By changing the face of AIDS, Ryan White created a legacy; he increased tolerance, education and help for people with AIDS. He died in 1990. The Ryan White CARE Act, the largest AIDS bill in the United States, was passed the same year, a year before I was born. I have been entering projects in National History Day competitions since 2006. This year, my group decided to make a documentary on Ryan White. This experience turned out to be so much more than a history project when we had the opportunity to travel to Cicero to interview four people who knew Ryan very well, including his mother, Jeanne White-Ginder. I took many things from these conversations, including a very personal connection to Ryan, and I was especially touched by Mrs. White-Ginder's continued dedication to her causes. I hadn't realized how much HIV/AIDS still affects our country, both the disease and the associated stigma. The Ryan White CARE Act, which is only funded through September of this year, provides financial help for those with the disease who can't afford the expensive medications. Please, help keep Ryan's legacy alive, and urge your representatives to reauthorize the Ryan White CARE Act. HIV/AIDS remains a critical issue in our country and should be recognized as such. People with HIV or AIDS face two battles just as Ryan did: the disease and the associated prejudice. However, because of Ryan's actions, both of these struggles have been lessened, and Ryan's legacy will hopefully be continued through the CARE Act. His success can be applied broadly and is still applicable to today's society: Education is the best weapon against prejudice, whether this prejudice is homophobia, racism or AIDS. Ryan White has taught me the importance of fighting prejudice with education, and I will continue this legacy as long as I am able.

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