In its first case addressing HIV, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Bragdon v. Abbott that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people living with HIV, whether or not they show any visible symptoms or have an AIDS diagnosis. The Court’s 1998 decision is a critical victory for people living with HIV because the ADA and similar state disability discrimination statutes are the only legal bases to fight HIV-related discrimination in jobs, housing and health care.

In this case, Bangor, Maine resident Sidney Abbott went to Randon Bragdon, D.M.D. to have a cavity filled. Citing his fears of HIV transmission from a patient, Dr. Bragdon refused to fill her cavity in his office solely because Ms. Abbott disclosed on a medical questionnaire that she has HIV. Dr. Bragdon claimed that people with HIV who were not yet manifestly ill did not meet the ADA’s definition of “disability.” The ADA defines a disability as a health condition that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

In its landmark decision, the Supreme Court agreed with GLAD that the presence of visible symptoms or illness is not necessary for coverage under the ADA. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the Court, gave a broad, expansive interpretation to the definition of “major life activities,” and specifically noted that Sidney Abbott was substantially limited in the major life activity of reproduction because of the risk of infecting her partner and her child.

The Court’s language and reasoning, however, go far beyond the facts of Sidney Abbott’s case and ensures that all people with HIV will be covered by the ADA. In a lengthy analysis, the Court endorsed long-standing interpretations of the ADA by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which found that the ADA protects symptomatic and asymptomatic HIV-infected individuals from discrimination, in part because HIV limits both procreation and sexual relations. The Supreme Court directed the nation’s lower courts to follow these agency interpretations. The Supreme Court’s broad definition of “disability” and its endorsement of these administrative interpretations of the ADA mean that Bragdon v. Abbott is an enormous victory, not only for Sidney Abbott, but for all people living with a disability.