PURPOSE: The study had two aims: (2) To explore whether knowledge about HIV and AIDS was similar among adolescents with disabilities compared with their non-disabled peers; and (2) To determine factors which may increase vulnerability of disabled adolescents to HIV infection and/or inappropriate access to HIV-related services.
METHOD: A qualitative study using focus group discussions and sem-structured interviews was conducted with purposefully selected participants in Rwanda and Uganda. The participants included disabled adolescents, non-disabled adolescents, parents, teachers, members of disabled people’s organisations and representatives of HIV/AIDS organisations. Interviews explored issues of HIV/AIDS knowledge, access to HIV/AIDS services and perceptions of personal risk.
RESULTS: Barriers preventing adequate access to information about HIV and AIDS experienced by adolescents with disabilities depended on the nature and severity of the impairment. For example, parents and health workers were unable to communicate with deaf adolescents using sign language, adolescents with physical impairments were often unable to access community meetings about HIV and print material was not adapted for those with visual impairments. Further, assumptions by health workers and community members that people with disabilities were not sexually active led to the marginalisation of disabled people from HIV services. Adolescents with disability described low self-esteem and issues of self-efficacy affecting control of safer sexual relationships. A high level of targeted abuse, rape and exploitation was reported leading to vulnerability among this population.
CONCLUSION: The impact of the HIV epidemic among people with disabilities is a neglected area. This study supports the need to develop strategies in HIV prevention programmes that include people with disabilities.