Roland, an HIV positive survivor, talks about the impact of hidden disabilities and how he had to overcome the stigma of his AIDS diagnosis at work.
How many hats do you wear and if we change hats for labels, which labels do we apply to ourselves or do others apply to us and how interchangeable are they? When does one label become more dominant? Individuals are multi-faceted, and our leading labels will vary, depending on the context at the time.
Roland for years, was not ‘out’ at work and didn’t share that part of his private life. He avoided social events for fear of anyone catching on to his truth. It was only in 2000 when he joined the Foreign Office, he was subject to an in-depth security check, so had to be honest, which afforded him a huge sense of relief that he could be wholly who he wanted to be. He feels this allowed him to be more productive and engaged within his roles as he was not always on high alert to ensure he did not trip up and reveal his secret. 3 years into his employment he became unwell and was diagnosed with HIV and AIDS, needing 5 months off work. On his return he was advised by HR not to share his diagnosis with the wider team as they could not be responsible for how they may react to this type of news. This deprived him the ability to be fully authentic, which had a huge impact on his mental health, it is mentally exhausting to not be your authentic self. An authentic person in the workplace is a happy person, so engaged, hardworking and likely to stay longer.
This happened 13 years ago and treatment for HIV and Aids has moved on rapidly since then. People testing positive for the disease now are able, with medication to get their virus levels down to a non-detectable level. There is still no cure but symptoms can be managed and reducing the virus level stops them being infectious. This advancement is still relatively new, only occurring within the last 3 years so is something many people are still not aware of. When Roland was diagnosed his employees reaction was based on the outdated mentality that the virus could be transmitted via sharing a cup/on the keyboard etc. Many of the reactions he received from people, were from a place of fear and it was this that sparked his drive to educate people on his illness.
HIV/aids used to be named GRID – gay related immune disease, but nowadays 50% of the HIV community is not gay. Currently the most at-risk categories are; post-menopausal women who are divorced/separated and engage in unprotected sex as they no longer see the risk of falling pregnant, and the black/African community. The primary route of infection being through unprotected sex. Statistics from Public Health England on annual infection rates show, over the last few years that there has been a drop in the number of gay men being diagnosed in the UK. Roland explains this is primarily due to the introduction of PREP, a form of treatment that can be taken as a preventative for the disease. Since its introduction infection rates for other STI’s has increased.
Roland, especially as a gay man has noticed that levels of acceptance and attitudes towards differences have improved, although there is still a lot of work to be done and there are still territories in the world where it is not safe to just be you. This leads Roland to question ‘how far do we have to go in order to be accepted for who we are and can we ever be truly authentic, especially in the workplace? In the privacy of our own homes, you may be a completely different person than you are in a professional setting, so Roland states that maybe authenticity is recognising the different hats that we wear and knowing when it is appropriate to wear each one.
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