The Ryan White Story:

A Young Man Fight Against Fear and Ignorance

The populace during the decade of the 1980's was introduced to an unexpected visitor- the still incurable, lethal disease known as AIDS. After doctors first diagnosed AIDS in the United States in June 1981, confusion about the disease was commonplace. Because very little was known about the causes of AIDS and how it was transferred to others, the general public was unaware of the facts; thus their ignorance resulted in widespread fear and tension. During that time, the "conscienceless" media was largely blamed for instigating the first so-called AIDS panic through their initial portrayal of the disease with a negative undertone. Rather than publicizing factual information about AIDS to the public, the media published stories, which were total lies at times, about the personal lives of the HIV-positives. As a result of such storytelling, the media sounded a hysterical alarm that AIDS was a real threat in the country. In addition, discrimination against AIDS patients came about. Instead of helping to fight the AIDS epidemic by gaining knowledge, the general public shunned those people with the fatal disease. However, the story of Ryan White changed the focus. The public learned and understood more about AIDS through Ryan White's courageous battle with the disease. His battle with AIDS brought the human story of the disease to many people's attention for the first time. Ryan White's struggle with AIDS helped people shift their focus from ignorance and discrimination to acceptance and new-found knowledge of the fatal disease.

The deadly human-immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS (acquired human deficiency syndrome). When the virus attacks the white blood cells of the immune system, which protect the body from infecting organisms, it begins to shut down. AIDS is known as the stage when opportunistic infections, which are easily fought off by a healthy immune system, imperil the body.

During the 1980's, panic arose because of the frightening AIDS epidemic. The scientific community was acquiring knowledge about the disease very slowly; thus, the general public drew conclusions based on rumors and miscommunicated material. The media was the primary culprit in dispensing misconstrued information about AIDS. They ignited and fanned the hysteria, with the frightened public being blindly led into the persecution of AIDS patients. Because of a lack of knowledge, various print media sources published contradictory information. In one case, Cosmo informed readers, "There [was] almost no danger of contracting AIDS through ordinary sexual intercourse". Whereas, Newsweek stated "AIDS [was] breaking out. The AIDS virus [was] now running rampant in the heterosexual community". With opposing information being publicized, confusion and uncertainty filled the atmosphere and fear and anxiety bedeviled Americans. Additionally, the TV networks described AIDS in ambiguous, ominous language. Kinsella, author of the book entitled 'Covering the Plague', states, "CBS usually called it 'a deadly, mysterious disease'; at ABC, it was 'new and frightening'; at NBC, 'terrifying'. Since viewers were aware of the uncertainties or doubts, they were led to think the worst. Even though the media publicized in the 1980's that the only way to acquire AIDS was through sexual activity and exposure to blood, people still believed that AIDS could be contracted through casual contact - for example, shaking hands, kissing, and hugging. Because of the ignorance of the facts about the disease, Americans' actions frequently bordered on hysteria and this added ostracism and discrimination to the suffering of the world's AIDS victims.

Ryan White, perhaps the world's most famous thirteen-year-old pediatric patient from Kokomo Indiana, is a prime example of one whose community rejected him because of his health status. On December 26, 1984, Ryan's mother, Jeanne, told him that he had AIDS, which he contracted through a transfusion of tainted blood used in treating his hemophilia. He was one of many victims of discrimination because of his problem. A bullet was fired into his house. Children called him names. Adults refused to shake hands with the White family at church. Ryan stated, "A lot of people would back away from me on the street...[or] they'd run from me". Furthermore, when Ryan started school in 1985, classmates taunted and ostracized him. Because AIDS was a new and alien specter then...the public fear and early ignorance led frightened parents to ask that Ryan be kept out of school and as a result, officials prevented him from attending classes. Because Ryan had a great love for learning, he fought to continue his education by pursuing a court case, which he ultimately won, against the school board. His perseverance to attend school and learn was evident through the action he took to solve the problem. Ryan not only showed that gaining knowledge was important to him, but also that it was important to everyone. During the 1980's, the people within a community had to acquire knowledge about AIDS in order for them to accept AIDS patients and focus on preventing the spread of AIDS. The fight to stay in school pushed Ryan the sometimes reluctant teen into the limelight and transformed him into an eloquent spokesman AIDS. During his presence, Ryan was an influence on the initiation of AIDS awareness programs.

Ryan still felt uncomfortable in Kokomo, though. The community of Cicero, Indiana welcomed Ryan with open arms after his move there. His actions thus far had already made an impact on others. The people in Cicero and the students of Hamilton Heights High School expressed no signs of discrimination. They had already accepted Ryan for who he was. The school directors arranged for each student to attend a two-hour seminar on AIDS. Teachers sent AIDS material home with all students and asked them to be sure their parents read it.

Even after Ryan's death, the story about his courageous battle with AIDS continues to impact the common man. Ryan's mother Jeanne plunged into numerous events that honored her son and projects on behalf of AIDS patients and medical research.  She made appearances at dozens of schools to talk about Ryan's struggle resulting in students who have shown interest in contributing to AIDS research. Students of Hauser Junior-Senior High School collected money to donate to the Ryan White Fund for Childhood Infections. In terms of media coverage, the federal government started an information campaign against AIDS: "Twenty-nine different spot ads were sent free of charge to thousands of television and radio stations across the country". The government designed the ads "to avoid the repellent, [and]to humanize AIDS". Overall, the media now strove to prevent the spread of AIDS, to prevent panic, and to support those already afflicted with the AIDS or the virus. More concrete facts were the prime focus rather than the misleading, doubtful information that had been broadcast beforehand.

Today, fear of AIDS still lurks in the air. This fear will never disappear unless a cure can be found for the disease. However, it is significant to note that Ryan White played a major role in changing people's views concerning the disease and AIDS patients. It is evident that Ryan's publicized story helped educate adults and youths alike about the realities of AIDS. He taught people that discrimination was not the solution to the problem of the AIDS epidemic. Through his actions, he conveyed the importance of education in order to slowly stop the spread of AIDS. In addition, Ryan's story impacted the media in that there was a visible shift from distributing information about AIDS that caused panic among the Americans to publicizing information that alleviated such feeling. Ryan was a catalyst for the initiation of AIDS awareness programs.


In August 1990, Congress signed the Ryan White CARE Act and in doing so created a system of services that has greatly improved the quality and availability of health care services for people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS.