Kevin Dickerson calls it one of the most humiliating days of his life.
Dickerson, who has AIDS, told Department of Human Rights investigators that a caseworker in a District government office asked him to move away from her, held a piece of paper up to her face when he talked and accused him of "purposely trying to communicate the disease by coughing on her."
For now, the complaint Dickerson filed more than a year ago is back in the office of the Department of Human Rights, which already has ruled once in Dickerson's favor. The Human Rights Department found that he was entitled to an apology and $5,000. The Department of Human Services, where the caseworker is employed, has appealed the ruling.
At issue is whether Dickerson was discriminated against or whether the caseworker, who said he had purposely coughed on her and had acted in a threatening and abusive manner, acted reasonably.
Dickerson said that, in addition to compensatory damages and a written apology from the caseworker, Theresa Waters, he wants the city to re-educate Waters about AIDS. Until her training is completed, Dickerson said, she should be kept away from people with AIDS.
In the view of some gay rights activists, Dickerson's case is a sad commentary on how little progress has been made in educating people about AIDS.
"This is an example that shows, 10 years into the epidemic, the message has still not gotten out that AIDS is not transmitted casually. Caseworkers should know better. We believe it is incumbent upon government workers to set examples for the rest of society," said Robert Bray, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in the District.
According to the Department of Human Rights findings, the Human Services Department does not formally teach caseworkers about AIDS, but encourages employees to attend classes on their own time.
In 1988, Mayor Marion Barry made it mandatory that AIDS education be available to District employees. Iris W. Lee, director of the Office of AIDS Activities, said at least 10,000 employees have been trained by her office.
"We've trained over 500 D.C. employees to serve as trainers in their agencies, and they conduct their own workshops," Lee said. The length of instruction varies from two hours to four days, depending on whether the person will work directly with people with AIDS or will be a trainer.
In the document explaining its ruling in the case, the Human Rights Department said Waters told investigators she attended a two-hour class in 1987. Waters said she asked Dickerson to move away from her "because of his coughing and his abusive and threatening attitude," according to the document. Waters declined to comment on the case.
Dickerson denied that he deliberately coughed on Waters or acted abusively when he went to see her June 1, 1989, to ask why he had not received his public assistance check. His mother was with him. After the exchange with Waters, he said, his mother was in tears and he was humiliated.
"It was the first time she got to see what life was like for her son living with AIDS," Dickerson said in an interview last week.
In November 1989, the Department of Human Rights ordered Human Services to pay Dickerson $5,000 in damages. Human Services appealed to City Administrator Carol B. Thompson, who kicked the case back to the Department of Human Rights. A spokeswoman for the Department of Human Rights said that Thompson questioned whether the department's ruling exceeded its authority and that she suggested the department ask the city's corporation counsel for clarification.
Dickerson, 34, is waiting to see what's next and hoping his efforts will at least result in a change in how people with AIDS are treated.
"I'm not waiting on a check so I can go to the bank," said Dickerson. "I can't put a price on . . . the humiliation and hurt. But there is a large homosexual population here, as well as other large groups of people at risk of contracting the AIDS virus . . . . I don't want anyone else to be treated like this."