An image from Austin AIDS Walk 2010Flickr / austin tx

Fighting for awareness: Austin AIDS Walk

The 24th annual Austin AIDS Walk, sponsored by AIDS Services of Austin, took place on Sunday, bolstering hope and support among the HIV, AIDS and gay community in Austin.

The physical sight of those walking to raise awareness for AIDS was lost in the distance Sunday afternoon as Freddy, a middle-aged man with a thin frame, paced himself several lanes behind members of the 24th annual Austin AIDS Walk sponsored by the AIDS Services of Austin. Keeping a steady balance by shifting his weight from side to side, Freddy, active and independent in movement, exemplified the ongoing struggle of those conflicted by the disease on a daily basis.

With attendees in front, and a police car trailing behind, I accompanied Freddy as he elaborated on the difficulties he encounters as a disabled, gay man living with AIDS. Speaking in brief sentences, he tells me that his mobility impairment is the result of a car accident that once left him on life-support and a prolonged coma.

As an advocate for disability rights, Freddy is involved with the local branch of ADAPT, an organization that, according to their national website, aims “to assure [both] the civil and human rights of people with disabilities to live in freedom.”

Casually walking on the street for a few minutes, Freddy and I were asked by a police officer to move to the sidewalk, since our pace had resulted in a large gap between us and the other participants, thus holding up traffic. Upon hearing this, I noticed Freddy's glasses magnify an intent look of frustration, and after expressing apparent dismay to the officer, he began to walk faster.

As Freddy stopped to acknowledge the support of onlookers down Second Street, he continued walking promptly, and as his light brown t-shirt disappeared into the crowd. I understood this to be a gesture towards equality; evoking the notion that no one, in any case, should have to walk or wheel their way through life feeling less than human just for living the life that they have been given.

All it takes is to open our eyes, and see someone else living courage in a bigger way than we could ever think.

— Paul Scott, executive director of AIDS Services of Austin

At 3.1 miles, City Hall Plaza served as a beginning and ending to the walk, and it was here, on the concrete steps of a shaded pavilion, where I spoke with Paul Scott, Executive Director of the AIDS Services of Austin, about his own personal battle with the disease.

HIV positive since 1987 and diagnosed with AIDS in 1989, Scott has been an advocate for both HIV and gay and lesbian rights, serving as the former Executive Director for Equality Texas.

Frustrated by the lack of community wide awareness, Scott started an AIDS Walk in the small conservative city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In its first year (1996), he remembers feeling unsure about how others would respond, but was ultimately overwhelmed by the outpouring support of more than 1,000 people.

As I conversed with Scott about Freddy’s determination to finish the walk, he said it symbolized “the spirit of the people fighting,” adding that “Austin has [the] passion and sense of caring that people need for [the] HIV community.”

Routinely taking 16 to 20 pills daily, Scott not only fights for awareness but fights to stay healthy. In offering advice for others living with AIDS, he says to “seek support wherever you can, stay in health care and hope.” Therein, for Scott, who has been advocating for over 16 years, hope means “a cure."

“All it takes is to open our eyes, and see someone else living courage in a bigger way than we could ever think,” he said.

According to the website, donors have currently raised more than $180,000 benefiting the “AIDS Services of Austin and nine other local nonprofit organizations addressing HIV and AIDS in Central Texas.”

Donations are ongoing and will be accepted until November 20, 2011. Please visit this link, for more information on how to contribute.