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For Volunteer, Early Exit Adds To Disease's Pain

By Stephen Barr
Monday, April 28, 2008

As a Peace Corps volunteer, Jeremiah S. Johnson taught English to sixth- through 11th-graders in Ukraine. About 100 students took his classes, and his work prompted him to think about trying to open an English resource center in the small city of Rozdilna, where he was teaching.

But his work ended abruptly. A test for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, came back positive, and the Peace Corps brought him back to Washington, where he was discharged by the agency.

"They told me it was Peace Corps policy for HIV-positive people to be medically separated," Johnson said in an interview. "I was told I could not work anywhere else for the Peace Corps."

The shock of the diagnosis was compounded by the stress involved in telling family and friends why he was back in the United States almost a year earlier than scheduled. "It put a dark and depressing spin on my coming home, which I didn't want," he said.

Johnson, who describes himself as healthy, said he thinks the Peace Corps' decision to let him go is contrary to federal anti-discrimination laws. He talked with a lawyer, who referred him to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Last week, the ACLU wrote to Ronald A. Tschetter, director of the Peace Corps, about Johnson's termination. Rebecca C. Shore, an ACLU staff lawyer, said Johnson's dismissal "appears based upon a Peace Corps policy to terminate volunteers who are HIV-positive without an individualized assessment as to whether they are able to serve with reasonable accommodation." Such a policy violates the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, she wrote.

Amanda H. Beck, the Peace Corps press director, said Tschetter plans to respond to the ACLU, which posted the letter on its Web site and sent out a news release about Johnson's case.

"The Peace Corps does not have a policy of automatically excluding people with HIV," Beck said. "The Peace Corps conducts individualized medical examinations of volunteers and applicants who are HIV-positive."

She said she cannot comment on Johnson's case because of privacy rules, noting that Johnson "has not given us permission to speak about his individual situation."

The ACLU thinks the Peace Corps should have negotiated with Johnson when he returned from Ukraine and offered him a chance to serve elsewhere. "Regardless of what they say their general policy is, that is not what happened here," Shore said.

In its letter, the ACLU pointed out that the State Department in February changed rules that disqualified HIV-positive Americans from becoming diplomats. The department said it revised medical clearance guidelines based on advances in HIV care and treatment and will take a case-by-case approach in deciding on applicants for Foreign Service assignments.

State's policy change came just weeks before a trial was scheduled to start in a lawsuit brought in 2003 by Lorenzo Taylor, who had been rejected for employment when he told the department about his HIV status. He was represented by Lambda Legal, a New York group that is an advocate for people with HIV.

Johnson discovered he had HIV during a trip in January to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, where he was attending a Russian language program with other Peace Corps volunteers. While in Kiev, he was given a scheduled medical exam, "and I opted to have an HIV test done. Unfortunately, it came back positive," Johnson said.

A few days later, the Peace Corps country director for Ukraine told Johnson to return to Washington because Ukrainian law bars people with HIV from working in the country, Johnson said.

Johnson said he was never shown a copy of the law; the Peace Corps declined to comment on the issue. State Department and travel-related Web sites show that foreigners working in Ukraine on visas lasting more than three months are required to undergo a test for HIV. A telephone call to the Ukrainian Embassy was not returned.

Back in Washington in February, Johnson had another medical exam and was given a "medical separation" from the Peace Corps.

On the notice, the Peace Corps said that it had determined "the resolution of your condition(s) will take longer than the maximum-allowable 45 days" and that "you would be medically unable to perform your volunteer assignment."

The reason for the medical separation written on the form is: "HIV -- lab work positive."

Johnson, 25, is living in Colorado, waiting tables at a restaurant and thinking of returning to college for a graduate degree.

He enjoyed his overseas work and does not see HIV as a barrier to continuing in public service. "The only thing I want is the Peace Corps to respond to this letter, change their policy to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws, or to clarify their policies so if they are in line with the law they stick with it.

"That's why I am going through with all this."

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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