Ryan White was an ordinary kid who used his voice to help change the world. He died more than 30 years ago on April 8, 1990. While we honor and celebrate Ryan's life every day at The Children's Museum, we're taking a few extra moments today to remember and honor the extraordinary life of a boy who just wanted to be a regular kid.
Fear. Ignorance. Panic.
That’s what many people felt in the 1980s when news began to spread about a frightening new disease—acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). It is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Misinformation led to overreaction as the nation struggled to contain its spread. Unfortunately, when it came to AIDS, prejudice and discrimination ruled the day.
Ryan White wanted to be a regular kid
Ryan White was born in Kokomo, Indiana, in 1971. He was born with a rare blood disease called hemophilia. Ryan had to receive blood transfusions to treat his hemophilia. But that didn’t stop him. He wanted to be a regular kid just like everyone else.
“The trouble is, like most hemophiliacs, I’m a real daredevil.”—Ryan White
Ryan’s doctors warned him that getting hurt would be extremely dangerous for him. But Ryan played baseball and rode his bikes and skateboards anyway. He was just like any other kids.
Ryan was diagnosed with AIDS on Dec. 17, 1984—just a few days after he turned 13. One of Ryan’s blood treatments was tainted with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He was one of the first children with hemophilia to be diagnosed with AIDS.
People treated Ryan differently
“I had plans and I certainly wasn’t going to drop them...I meant to make something of myself.”—Ryan White
Ryan wanted to live his life as normally as possible. He wanted to be a regular kid in every way he could. That included going to school just like every other regular kid. Doctors insisted that Ryan did not pose any danger to other students. Because HIV is not spread through the air, he was not contagious to the community. Many people, however, did not understand that. They fought to keep Ryan out of their school.
This was not OK. Ryan used his voice to speak up against the discrimination he was facing. His family took the school district to court. After a long series of battles, the courts decided that Ryan should be allowed to return to school.
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop people from mistreating Ryan. Students talked about him behind his back. Some even refused to drink after him at the water fountain. People called his home the “AIDS House.” Ryan was tired of being treated differently. He and his family decided it was time to move.
New school, new reaction
Ryan’s family ultimately moved to Hamilton County, Indiana. The school welcomed him with open arms. Students listened to the facts. They shared the information with their parents. The community believed Ryan. They treated him like any other kid.
“I’m just one of the kids…”—Ryan White
Known around the world
When Ryan started to use his voice, people listened. His voice helped educate people about HIV and AIDS. As people began to understand the disease, it helped them be less afraid of people who had AIDS.
“Ryan helped us believe that...nothing is impossible—even for a kid.”—Reverend Ray Probasco
People around the world heard Ryan White’s story. Many rallied around him. Celebrities befriended him. Thousands of people from all over the world sent him letters. Many were from children and teens who had seen his story and wanted Ryan to know they loved him and supported him. You can read some of those letters here.
Sadly, Ryan White passed away from AIDS-related pneumonia on April 8, 1990—one month before his high school graduation. His five year battle was over. More than 1,500 friends, family, and classmates attended his funeral in Indianapolis. Governor Evan Bayh ordered flags to fly at half-staff. Former President Ronald Reagan published a tribute to Ryan in a national newspaper.
Following Ryan White's example
Ryan used his voice to fight against misinformation and fear. He stood up to discrimination. And the world listened. An ordinary kid from Kokomo, Indiana, used his voice to change the world. How can we follow his example? How can we honor Ryan’s legacy today?
1. Be informed.
When we face the unknown, it can lead to fear. Some people do mean things when they’re afraid of something they don’t know or understand. People spread rumors. They share half-truths and misinformation. Ryan faced discrimination because people didn’t understand HIV and AIDS. People were less afraid after they learned the facts.
You can fight against fear by being informed. Don’t just listen to the rumors and made-up stories. Find the experts. Listen to them.
2. Be kind.
A small act of kindness can make a big impact. Even though some people continued to discriminate against Ryan throughout his life, he and his family were touched by the countless examples of kindness they encountered throughout his battle.
Someone once said “Be kind. You never know what someone is going through.” Sprinkle kindness throughout the day.
3. Use your voice.
Ryan’s story can help give you the courage to speak up and be strong. Shut down rumors. Speak up when someone is being mistreated. You have a voice. If we team up and use our voices together, we can make the world a better place.
Just an ordinary kid
Ryan White just wanted to be one of the kids. He wanted to go to school. He wanted people to treat him the same way they would treat any other kid.
“He was the right kid at the right time.”—Dr. Martin Keiman
A few months after Ryan died, Congress passed a bill that helps people with AIDS help pay their medical expenses. It’s called the Ryan White CARE Act. Ryan’s legacy. This ordinary kid who did ordinary things like play baseball, skate on his skateboard, and drive a car has had a lasting impact on the world around us.
Let’s continue to honor Ryan White’s legacy today.
For more information about hemophilia and other rare blood disorders, visit the Indiana Hemophilia & Thrombosis Center.
Learn more about Ryan White
Ryan White is one of the children highlighted in The Power of Children®: Making a Difference at The Children's Museum. The following posts share how Ryan’s life continues to impact people 30 years after his death.