A Likely Story: HIV and the Definition of Disability in UK Employment Equality Law, 1996-2005
Cancer is first of all a disease of the body’s geography, in contrast to syphilis and AIDS, whose definition depends on constructing a temporal sequence of stages. (Sontag, 1988: 110) This paper engages the question of how to understand legal temporalities. In particular, it asks what fresh methodological approaches we can use to animate socio-legal studies on time. Drawing on approaches from material culture, legal anthropology, and actor network theory, my current work analyzes what ‘things’ do within equality law networks; how objects create legal time. One example of this is how anti-retroviral drugs, biological phenomena, and medical reports, contributed to the legal construction of ‘HIV futures’ in disability discrimination law in the 1990s. Many HIV positive workers in the UK during the 1990s faced employment harassment and dismissal. HIV/AIDs was widely represented, in racialised and homophobic terms, through tropes of moral decline and impeding apocalypse (Sontag, 1988), a socio-temporal phenomenon that we would now analyze for its ‘chrono-normative’ (Freeman) or ‘chrono-biological (Luciano) effects. Despite many of their problems being to do with stigma, the only legal route for positive people was to claim disability discrimination. This required proving, on a case-by-case basis, that HIV was a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 through ‘likelihood of future impairment’. Legal status was thereby intimately linked to a person’s future through medical prognosis and discussions about their T-cell count and viral load. Importantly, even though developments in anti-retroviral therapies had led to a rapid shift in how positive people viewed their own futures (from ‘near death’ in the 1980s to ‘chronic and treatable condition’ by the late 1990s), claimants had to eschew these brighter futures to gain legal rights. Drawing on interviews, case reports, and interdisciplinary research, this paper attempts to analyze the role of objects such as anti-retrovirals, medical reports, and T-cell counts on the construction of legal futures for HIV positive claimants at this key juncture in recent legal history, asking what objects add (and do not add) to our understanding of law and time.
Emily Grabham is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Kent. She is currently writing a book on how concepts of time influence equality laws ('In Law's Time: Legal Temporalities in Equality Projects', under contract with University of Toronto Press). Her recent article 'Doing Things with Time: Flexibility, Adaptability, and Elasticity in UK Equality Cases' won the Canadian Law & Society Association 2011 English Article Prize. She has published widely on law and time, sociological theories of time, and feminist and queer legal theory. She is the holder of a 2012 ESRC Future Research Leaders award for a 3 year project studying gaps in equality and employment law affecting precarious workers with care commitments.
from our workshop on Power, Time and Agency held in Manchester, January 2013