May 4, 1997
AIDS Patients Seek New Futures
ATLANTA (AP) -- Career coach Al Stewart stands before a classroom of people seeking to reenter the corporate world and earnestly advises deception.
Don't tell them why you left your original job. Don't ask too many questions about health benefits. Don't tell them you have AIDS.
``You have to play the game,'' Stewart tells the class of mostly men who are learning how to get hired again and how to become financially stable. ``I wish I could put it another way, but it's a cover-up.''
With a declining mortality rate and stunningly successful new medical regimes indicating that AIDS may no longer amount to a certain death sentence, people living with the disease face a new predicament: What next?
The classes offered at AID Atlanta, called ``Reconstruction,'' are part of a novel approach toward the changing epidemic. Like many such social service agencies, AID Atlanta has been more a caretaker than a career counselor. Now, it hands out classified ads along with the condoms.
``The system we have now for people with AIDS is built to help them die, not to live,'' says Mark King, who started the new classes. ``After more than 15 years with this epidemic, we're looking for something new to talk about.''
``These are issues that are scaring people to death,'' says Bryan Freeman, a financial planner for people with cancer and AIDS. ``They've already dealt with dying. What they have to deal with now is living well and how they are going to do it financially.''
The classes have titles such as ``Designing Your Financial Future, Now That You Have One.''
``We had one session on just dealing with the emotion that you aren't going to die,'' King says.
Lining tables in each class are booklets with advice on getting insurance and keeping it, lists of job openings and businesses that hire people with AIDS, ways to earn money until the good job comes along.
Tonight's topic is job hunting, and Stewart is peppered with questions: How do you explain a three-year gap on a resume? How do you find out about health benefits? How do you tell them you might have to leave again?
Tell them Mom died, Stewart suggests. Or that you tried to write that book you always dreamed about. Or that you went into business for yourself. In other words, nothing that can be verified.
``That sounds awful,'' he says. ``It sounds deceptive, but what choice do they have? That's the workplace today.''
Federal law forbids employers from asking potential employees about a medical condition. Bosses may fire employees for lying, but they must first prove the company has a longstanding policy of firing liars.
Neru Parker, a commercial real-estate agent in Atlanta until learning in 1988 he had the AIDS virus, came to the class ready to return to work. But when he leaves, he is unwilling to lie.
``This is frightening, in a way, to me,'' Parker says. ``I don't know if I can do that, but I'm glad to know what it's like out there.''
Word of Atlanta's program is spreading. This month, King will pitch ``Reconstruction'' to the National AIDS Fund, a grant-writing organization in Washington, D.C.
``This is really turning around everyone's thinking about the disease,'' says Judy Spiegel of the California Community Foundation, which funds AIDS programs. ``We have to think about how to create programs for people to manage this disease.''
Not everyone is ready for them.
``I don't want national policy to be built around it yet,'' says Christine Lubinski, deputy programming director for AIDS Action Council in Washington. ``Back to work is a very complicated issue. People with AIDS are not a homogeneous group.''
AIDS is different than most diseases, says Los Angeles psychologist Adam Chidekel.
``All these back-to-work programs and new expectations are based on the medication they are taking,'' says Chidekel, who counsels AIDS patients and their families. ``We don't know how long it's going to work.''