Vocational Development Needs of People Living with HIV/AIDS is Focus of Conyers Research
by Joe Savrock (April 2010)
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – People living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) have brighter health prognoses as a result of advances in antiretroviral drug therapies. However, many continue to face barriers to employment. The disease carries a social stigma that underlies employers’ reluctance to hire PLWHA.
Liza M. Conyers, associate professor of rehabilitation and human services, has been conducting extensive research on the educational and career development needs of PLWHA. She is a founding member of the National Working Positive Coalition (NWPC), a coalition of HIV researchers, educators, service providers, and advocates committed to improving the financial and personal well being of individuals living with the disease.
Conyers has presented her research at a wide range of conferences related to HIV/AIDS issues. She recently was invited to provide input to a panel at the Institute on Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences regarding potential revisions of the Social Security Administration's definition of HIV disability. She provided an update on current research and, along with her colleague, Brent Braveman (University of Illinois Chicago), advised the panel that a medical diagnosis alone is not sufficient to determine a person’s ability to work and that a more comprehensive functional assessment is recommended.
She says, “There are many economic and psychosocial factors that can come into play, and the combination of these factors can affect different people in different ways. Consequently, there is no simple rating tool or rubric that can be used to assess disability. A more comprehensive assessment that focuses on functional capacity by trained professionals is recommended.”
Conyers received a Mary Switzer Research Merit Fellowship from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education. A portion of the award allowed her to conduct a nationwide survey of PLWHA. Conyers and her Penn State research team recruited more than 2,500 participants in the study, titled National Working Positive Coalition’s Vocational Development and Employment Needs Survey, working closely with leading HIV/AIDS organizations. The research team consisted of an interdisciplinary group of Penn State undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students. The New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute contributed additional funds to ensure a representative sample of individuals with HIV/AIDS from that state.
The study yielded several preliminary findings:
- People with HIV/AIDS and their service providers have little knowledge of services and laws designed to assist people with disability return to work.
- There may be important health and prevention implications associated with transitions to and from employment that need further investigation.
- Only a fraction of those who experienced work-related discrimination reported this discrimination to their employers, legal aid, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
This study has already led to a number of positive outcomes. In his doctoral dissertation, Paul A. Datti ’09 Ph.D., a research assistant on the study, used data from the study to examine the use of vocational rehabilitation services among Latino men with HIV/AIDS in New York. A publication related to his dissertation is in press with the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation. Datti is now a faculty member at the University of Scranton.
Conyers has presented the study’s initial findings at numerous rehabilitation and HIV-related conferences; she also co-presented with Maricela Carrera, a doctoral candidate in Penn State’s Adult Education program, at the United States Conference on AIDS. Conyers is currently working on a series of other manuscripts related to the study.
Conyers is collaborating with the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute to examine the the state's data set and to work with consumers and providers in New York to establish networks and services to address the needs identified in the study throughout the state. Along with colleagues from the NWPC, she has been invited by the National Association of People with AIDS to participate in a women’s institute to address the vocational development and employment needs of women who have the disease.