A Culture-Shifting Moment:
Bragdon v. Abbott and HIV Discrimination

Plaintiff Sidney Abbott with Attorney Bennett Klein

Plaintiff Sidney Abbott with Attorney Bennett Klein

The AIDS epidemic that hit the United States in the early 1980s quickly bred a toxic combination of public confusion, fear, and prejudice. People known—or even suspected—to have been infected were fired from their jobs, denied housing and medical care. Even kids with HIV were kicked out of school.

The 1990 federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) sought to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation. Despite the fact that HIV and AIDS were widely presumed to be covered under the ADA, and despite advancements in understanding about HIV and AIDS by the 1990s, prejudice and discrimination persisted.

GLAD’s 1995 case, Bragdon v. Abbott, established that people with HIV and AIDS are in fact protected by the ADA. Bragdon was the first ADA case ever heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the first involving HIV. It was the second Supreme Court case argued by an openly-gay attorney.

The case began in 1994 when Bangor, Maine dentist Randon Bragdon refused to treat Sidney Abbott in his office after she disclosed that she was HIV+. GLAD filed suit under the ADA in federal district court in Maine. After GLAD’s victory there and at the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, Bragdon appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Court agreed to hear the case in 1995.

At issue were two critical questions: Was Sidney Abbott a person with a disability, as defined by the ADA? And did treating her in his dental office pose a direct threat to Dr. Bragdon’s health or safety?

The Supreme Court in June 1998 ruled 5-4 that Sidney Abbott was a person with a disability, and was protected by the ADA. Remanded to the lower court, the “direct threat” question was not decided until December 1998, when the First Circuit Court ruled that Bragdon’s risk of HIV transmission was statistically insignificant and could not be used to justify discrimination.

Bragdon remains the foundational case in HIV and disability law. In ensuring ADA protections for people with HIV and AIDS, GLAD took the promise of the ADA and made it a reality in the daily lives of people living with infection. In its declaration that HIV is a disability and that discrimination is illegal, Bragdon changed attitudes and behavior. And in doing so it became, on a national scale, a culture-shifting moment.

Additional Resources

News Coverage - Audio
NPR: Morning Edition 3/30/98 -
Disability Test Case

PBS: The News Hour with Jim Lehrer 3/30/98 - Defining Disability »

NPR: All Things Considered 6/25/98 - SCOTUS: HIV »

NPR: Morning Edition 6/26/98 - HIV Carriers are Disabled »

Minnesota Public Radio 6/30/98 - Supreme Court Ruling: Reproduction Called a 'Major Life Activity' »

PBS: The News Hour with Jim Lehrer 6/30/98 - Defining Disability »

News Coverage - Print
NY Times 6/26/98 -
The Supreme Court: The Opinion – Justices, 6-3, Bar Veto Of Line Items In Bills; See H.I.V. As Disability; Ruling On Bias Law

USA Today 6/26/98 - Disability Law Covers People with AIDS Virus »

Washington Post 6/26/98 - Disability Law Covers HIV, Justices Rule »

Washington Post 6/26/98 - Ruling Shows How Far Nation Has Come on Epidemic »

Case Materials
Bangor Daily News 2/12/96 - Dentistry in a Time of Tyranny: Op Ed by Dr. Randon Bragdon »

Bangor Daily News 3/21/96 - Justice and the ADA (Response to Bragdon's Op Ed) »

Oral Argument at the U.S. Supreme Court (audio and transcript) »

The U.S. Supreme Court's Decison »

Fact Sheet on the Case Prepared by GLAD (pdf) »

GLAD's Press Release on the Supreme Court Decision »

HIV/AIDS Resources
The Body: The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource »

AIDS Action »

Eastern Maine AIDS Network »

Other cases from GLAD's AIDS Law Project »

ADA Resources
The full text of the Americans with Disabilities Act »

The ADA Home Page at the US Department of Jusitice »

Bennett Klein talks to the press outside the U.S. Supreme Court

Bennett Klein talks to the press outside the U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court argument card

U.S. Supreme Court argument card
See the full card

Sidney Abbott is honored at an AIDS Action Committee event

Sidney Abbott is honored at an AIDS Action event


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A Culture-Shifting Moment: Bragdon v. Abbott and HIV Discrimination


Attorney Bennett Klein talks about the importance of fighting HIV discrimination

Attorney Bennett Klein describes arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court


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