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(Washington, DC) – Donors supporting HIV programs, policymakers, and service providers should ensure that the world’s 1 billion people with disabilities have equal access to HIV prevention and treatment, Human Rights Watch said today, in advance of the 19th International AIDS Conference. The conference will begin on July 22, 2012, in Washington, DC.

“The world’s 1 billion people with disabilities are largely invisible when it comes to HIV prevention, education, treatment, and counseling,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, senior disability rights advocate and researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To ensure effective programs, people with disabilities need to be included, beginning with the design of HIV services all the way through to the evaluation phase.”

People with disabilities face a range of barriers that limit their access to HIV prevention and treatment. They are often excluded from sex education and sexual health services because they are wrongly assumed not to be sexually active. Information is rarely provided in formats easily understood or used by people with mental and intellectual disabilities, or with hearing and visual impairments.

“People look at disabled people and think, ‘They don’t have sex’,” said John Meletse, a South African disability advocate who is deaf, gay, and living with HIV. “But it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, or bisexual, …we can be infected by HIV,” said Meletse in a new video released by Human Rights Watch today.

Buildings and transportation needed to access HIV services are also often inaccessible to people with physical disabilities. One woman in northern Uganda told Human Rights Watch that she had not been able to find out her HIV status because shewould need to crawl a long distance and sleep on the road to get to the nearest HIV testing center.Donors, policymakers, and service providers should make sure that HIV services – including testing centers, care services, and teaching and training sessions – are fully accessible to people with various types of disabilities, Human Rights Watch said. This includes ensuring that services are physically accessible, and providing sign language interpretation, easy-to-understand information materials, and Braille resources. Service providers should train staff on disability issues, and policy makers should include the disability community in their work on HIV issues.

“With new advances in science there is hope for a world without AIDS, but without providing accessible HIV prevention and treatment for the 1 billion people with disabilities around the world, we won’t be able to achieve that goal,” Barriga said.

Human Rights Watch will highlight the intersections between HIV and disability rights at the International AIDS Conference. Medi Ssengooba, Finberg fellow at Human Rights Watch, will present at a workshop on creating disability-inclusive HIV policies and programs on July 23 at 2:30 p.m., and Rebecca Schleifer, advocacy director, will participate in a panel on HIV, disability, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on July 26 at 2:30 p.m.

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