Ed Scholl, of John Snow, Inc., is the AIDSTAR-One Project Director. AIDSTAR-One is funded by USAID’s Office of HIV/AIDS. The project provides technical assistance to USAID and U.S. Government country teams to build effective, well-managed, and sustainable HIV and AIDS programs.
The messages were familiar, but the delivery was not. The classroom was filled with high school students learning about HIV, sexually transmitted infections, and pregnancy prevention. But instead of a teacher lecturing, or using a flipchart or video, a blind man spoke to the class, with a sign language interpreter communicating his words to deaf students who attend the Dominican Republic’s National School for the Deaf in Santo Domingo. I watched as the deaf students carefully followed the interpreter’s hand motions and quickly responded in sign language to the questions posed by the facilitator.
The blind facilitator is one of 30 persons living with disabilities trained by the Dominican PROBIEN Foundation to communicate HIV information to others living with disabilities. Two other PROBIEN facilitators, one who is also deaf and another whose leg was amputated, simultaneously led discussions about HIV and reproductive health in other classrooms at the school. These efforts to bring HIV information and education to persons living with disabilities and their families are supported under a grant provided by the AIDSTAR-One project, with funding made available by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)/Dominican Republic. Through AIDSTAR-One, USAID is providing financial support and technical assistance to build the capacity of twelve Dominican NGOs, including the PROBIEN Foundation, working in HIV prevention, care and treatment for most-at-risk and vulnerable populations.
Persons with disabilities make up an estimated 15 percent of the world’s population.
They are considered to be a population at risk of HIV, unintended pregnancy, and sexual abuse, yet they are often overlooked when it comes to programs and services. Why is this so? PROBIEN Director Magino Corporan explains that much of society doesn’t want to acknowledge the human rights of people living with disabilities. They may be objects of pity and charity, but they don’t enjoy the same opportunities for education, employment, health care, and rights that others enjoy. People living with disabilities are also often considered to be sexually inactive, so they rarely receive sexual and reproductive education, contraceptives, and access to services.
Recognizing the value of peer education, PROBIEN trains people with disabilities to provide education about HIV, sexually transmitted infections, and reproductive health to other people with disabilities, and to their families. One PROBIEN promoter, who lost both legs in a traffic accident, directs a community radio program and shares information about HIV with his listening audience once a week. Two other promoters play in a wheelchair basketball organization and share HIV messages with their teammates. When I interviewed them recently, they invited me to sit in a wheelchair and play a practice game with them. Needless to say, this one-time basketball player was humbled in the extreme!
PROBIEN also works at the policy level and, in 2008, played an instrumental role in getting the Dominican Government to include persons living with disabilities as beneficiaries of national health insurance (along with persons living with HIV).
Thanks to the work of PROBIEN and its volunteer promoters and the support of USAID, many more people with disabilities and their families in the Dominican Republic are receiving messages about HIV and sexual and reproductive health and taking action to protect themselves and live healthy lives. Efforts to protect this often neglected at-risk population not only empower people living with disabilities to take control of their own health but also serve as a powerful example of a truly inclusive and human rights approach to HIV programming.