Ryan White

by Jessica from San Diego

Ryan White has succeeded in making "AIDS a disease, not a dirty word."

"More than 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV infection, and almost 1 in 6 (15.8%) are unaware of their infection," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While awareness of the disease could certainly be improved in the United States, a great deal has been accomplished since 1981 when the disease was discovered. For many years after the disease was discovered in the early 1980s, awareness of how people contracted the disease was virtually nonexistent. Ryan White was one of the pivotal figures in the 1980s who brought about greater awareness about AIDS. Born on December 6, 1971, Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, after being given multiple infusions of a contaminated blood-clotting compound intended to treat his hemophilia. After hearing about the devastating news, his neighborhood in the small town of Kokomo, Indiana did not accept him because of the ignorance and stigma surrounding AIDS. Because the school feared he would spread the disease to his peers, White was expelled from school, even though it was medically proven at the time that the AIDS virus was not contagious. Though this decision was overturned in court, he still faced discrimination inside and outside of school as he became a pariah in the community. However, his fight to go to school's publicity brought hope for White, a teenager who simply wanted to fit in; White and his family were able to move to Cicero, Indiana in 1987. There, fifteen-year old White was welcomed, and his dream of going to school came true. Until his death on April 8, 1990, Ryan White served as a prominent spokesperson for people with AIDS, fighting prejudice against those with the disease by speaking all over the country about his experiences. In spite of the severe discrimination White faced in his past, he persevered in order to help others in the same situation. Because of his persistence and courage, Ryan White overcame tremendous obstacles in his life to raise awareness about AIDS, remaining humble even as he became famous.

Rather than giving up when ostracized for having AIDS, Ryan White continuously fought to annihilate the stereotypes and ignorance surrounding AIDS. When White was strong enough to return to class in the spring of 1985, despite his eagerness to go to school, others did not welcome him in fear that they may be infected with the AIDS virus. Undeterred by the opposition, White and his mom knew their rights, so they fought his expulsion from his public high school in hopes of granting his wish to go to school. "Ryan really became famous because of his fight to go to school... As he started getting healthy, as he started gaining weight, he started to ask, 'Mom, he said, I want to go to school, I want to go visit my friends. I want to see my friends...'so it was a long process. Through court hearings, we thought it would take one court hearing, and we'd have all these medical experts in so to speak, and then everybody would be educated, but it didn't happen that way...It was really bad. People were really cruel" ("Who Was Ryan White?" Health Sources and Services Administration). White wanted to go school, but the prejudice and fear in his neighborhood prevented him from doing so. As the result, he strove for change by bringing the case to court. Despite the fact that AIDS wasn't contagious through casual contact, not many people wanted to believe the medical evidence, emphasizing the hardheadedness of the people at the time and how much change was needed. In order to simply go to school, a basic right that many students nowadays take for granted, Ryan White had to go to not one court hearing, but multiple, even though no law could reasonably bar him from attending school. Even though the situation seemed utterly hopeless, White persevered through all the court hearings so that he may have the right to go to school. After moving to a more accepting neighborhood in Cicero, Indiana, White got the chance to make a movie about his life, a chance to eradicate the ignorance people in the 1980s had about AIDS. "He appeared on numerous television programs, including CBS Morning News, the The Today Show, Sally Jessy Raphael, The Phil Donahue Show, Hour Magazine, the Home Show, Peter Jennings' 'Person of the Week,' Nightline, West 57th Street, P.M. Magazine, Entertainment Tonight, and Primetime Live... An ABC movie, The Ryan White Story, was made about his life. White acted in the movie, playing his best friend, Chad. 'I wanted to make that movie because I was hoping that what we went through will never happen to anyone else,' White wrote in his book [Ryan White: My Own Story]" ("Ryan White." Encyclopedia of World Biography). Ultimately, because of Ryan White's hard work and effort to make a change, victims of AIDS no longer face so much discrimination. Now, people with AIDS are no longer expelled from school. Now, people with AIDS will not be denied access to medical care and social services. Now, people with AIDS cannot be evicted from their home. Additionally, after Ryan White's death, Congress recognized his efforts and impact on the United States, so they passed the Ryan White Care Act that strives to "improve availability of care for low-income, uninsured and under-insured victims of AIDS and their families" ("Ryan White & Care Act History." West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources). Because of White's dedication to educating others about AIDS, even Congress took notice of him and passed a legislative act to help with the cause. White's actions after facing rejection from everyone in his neighborhood prove him to be a persistent hero fighting against ignorance.

Besides being persistent to reach his goal, White was courageous in everything he accomplished. Rather than only ridding the misconceptions that AIDS was a punishment for homosexuals, White fought against homophobia as well. "'I've learned that God doesn't dislike homosexuals, like a lot of Christians think. AIDS isn't their fault, just like it isn't my fault. God loves homosexuals as much as He loves everyone else'" ("Ryan White." Newsmakers). At the time, AIDS was known as the "gay cancer," so the main reason people with AIDS were discriminated was homophobia. The fact that White addressed homosexuals and fought against homophobia proves that he was courageous. He was not simply fighting against discrimination towards heterosexuals who have AIDS, White was fighting against the discrimination against all people with AIDS, an admirable act of bravery. Though Ryan White is known for being courageous as an AIDS activist, White should also be credited for the way he approached his "death sentence." "'They think I'm gonna die. You know what, they better not hold their breath,' Ryan White once told his mother" (Jefferson). Despite being given six months to live, he lived five and a half years. This can only be credited to his unwavering courage. Rather than simply giving up under the pressure of rejection and death, White strove for change for not only himself, but other people with similar situations. Ryan White certainly defines the word courage by not only how he speaks, but how he acts.

As much as Ryan White had the right to be proud about his fame, he remained humble, which allowed him to understand priorities. Rather than dwelling in pride, White had a clear sight of his goal, which proved that he was certainly humble: "He still found his celebrity status embarrassing (he often declared that he wouldn't hesitate an instant to trade his fame for good health), but understood his value as a teacher and role model. 'I'm helping people, I think, and I don't want people treated like me,' White told a reporter for People magazine. 'But now I just want to be like everyone else, 'cause that's what counts in high school'" ("Ryan White." Newsmakers). Firstly, by the way Ryan White spoke, one can see his humility. At this point, White had become a teacher and role model to many people, and he certainly was not under as much discrimination as before, due to his hard work to eradicate the stigma surrounding AIDS. White was no longer fighting discrimination against himself, but discrimination against others with AIDS. His humility allowed him to clearly see the situation and prevented him from valuing fame over health, contrary to how famous people nowadays value. Ryan White simply desired to live a normal life as a teenager. Unlike most celebrities, White did not hope for a celebrity status, but accepted it for the sake of other people. "Ryan became a celebrity, too, to his chagrin, because 'it's creepy to be famous because you're sick'" ("Ryan White." American Decades). White simply desired for change and to be a normal teenager. His humility helped keep him from getting caught up with his growing fame. Despite not originally desiring fame, one can still get caught up with fame, something Ryan White successfully avoided. From the beginning of his fight against AIDS to its end, Ryan White kept himself humble despite his fame.

Ryan White's persistence, courage, and humility make him the most admirable teen activist. He persisted through trials in his own neighborhood in which he grew up. Because of the ignorance about AIDS, he was suddenly ostracized by even his own childhood friends when he was diagnosed with the AIDS disease. Rather than giving up, White became determined to change the United State's lack of awareness, which made it acceptable for people to be continuously "evicted from their home, fired from their jobs, and denied health insurance" (Jefferson). Moreover, despite his obstacles, Ryan White displayed courage as he fought against prejudice for all people with AIDS, not just heterosexual Americans with AIDS. Also, he proved that he was courageous when he realized he had a death sentence of AIDS. "He wasn't afraid of death" ("Ryan White." Newsmakers). Furthermore, Ryan White was not arrogant despite his celebrity status, unlike the majority of celebrities. He remained level-headed and most importantly, humble. Throughout his whole life, White knew that health was much more important than fame, and not once did he falter on that belief. Unlike other well-known AIDS activist, Ryan White was the youngest, but he impacted the United States the most, shaking all the previous false and ignorant stereotypes. Rather than waiting for his death to come, which doctors predicted would come in six months, Ryan White fought against prejudice for more than five years since the day he was diagnosed with AIDS. I learned from Ryan White that no one is too young to make a difference. White simply passionately fought against unjust treatments because he was upset about the way people with AIDS were being treated. Moreover, I learned from Ryan White that I must act accordingly with my beliefs and make a difference, regardless of how others may treat me. In the 1980s, his peers bullied him because he had AIDS. The fact he had AIDS at the time was a "justifiable" reason for people to dehumanize him. However, without the experience fighting AIDS, with the activism and consciousness-raising accompaniments, would people be wearing rubber yellow bracelets in support for cancer research? Certainly not. "And without the experience of battling AIDS, would scientists have the strategies and technologies to develop the antiviral drugs we'll need to battle microbial killers yet to emerge?" (Jefferson). Certainly not. Without Ryan White's tireless effort to combat ignorance about AIDS, would there be a Ryan White Care Act supporting people with AIDS that don't have enough health insurance coverage or financial resources? Certainly not. Because of Ryan White and the other AIDS activists he inspired, despite only aiming towards people with AIDS, they unconsciously helped other groups of people suffering from other health problems like cancer. Overall, as Ryan White's minister said at his funeral, Ryan White succeeded in making "AIDS a disease, not a dirty word."

Works Cited

"HIV in the United States: At a Glance." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed

            31 March 2014. .

Jefferson, David. "How AIDS Changed America; The plague years: It brought out the worst in

us at first, but ultimately it brought out the best, and transformed the nation. The story of a disease that left an indelible mark on our history, our culture and our souls." Newsweek 15 May 2006: 36. Biography in Context. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.

"Ryan White." American Decades. Ed. Judith S. Baughman, et al. Detroit: Gale, 1998.Biography

            in Context. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.

"Ryan White & Care Act History." Ryan White & Care Act History. West Virginia Department

of Health and Human Resources, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2014. .

"Ryan White." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. "Ryan White." HighBeam Research, 01 Jan. 2004. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.

"Ryan White." Newsmakers. Detroit: Gale, 1990. Biography in Context. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.

"Who Was Ryan White?" Who Was Ryan White? Health Sources and Services Administration,

            n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2014. .

Page created on 5/6/2014 12:00:00 AM

Last edited 7/10/2020 5:20:43 AM

The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.

Related Links

Ryan White Official Website - Ryan White Official Website educates people about Ryan White and the Ryan White Care Act enacted by Congress.
Health Resources and Services Administration - HSRA reveals the life of Ryan White and his impact on the world. Furthermore, HRSA provides an overview of the Ryan White Legislation.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - CDC provides fact sheets about HIV and AIDS. Moreover, CDC informs people about how to get tested for HIV and the policies and programs for those affected by HIV and AIDS.
AIDS Alliance - AIDS Alliance teaches people about HIV and AIDS, serving as the voice for those living with or affected by HIV and AIDS. - informs people about HIV and AIDS and provides federal resources.