#RockTheRibbon – Joe’s story

At Specsavers we recently announced our renewed commitment to diversity and inclusion:  

‘We will have an inclusive culture where everyone feels welcome, valued and proud to belong’  

To help us achieve this ambition we need to ensure that we create a space that our colleagues feel comfortable in their own skin and have the courage to speak up and bring their true selves to work. We are so pleased to say that we are well on our journey to achieving this and this World Aid’s Day one of our colleagues would like to share his story to #RockTheRibbon and help everyone at Specsavers have a better education about HIV.  

Meet Joe Finch, Joe has worked at Specsavers for a year and a half in our digital team. Back in 2007 he went for a routine health appointment which changed his life when he was diagnosed with HIV.  

‘When the doctor told me the news, all I could think of was the death sentence adverts from when I was a child around the time of the AIDS crisis really hitting hard.’ 

Joe left his appointment feeling shell shocked and not knowing who to turn to or where to go. His mum would usually be the first place to go, but knowing the stigma surrounding HIV, he didn’t want to. In the end he met a friend in a bar and that was the only person he told on his diagnosis day.  

A few days later, Joe went to work for his employer at the time and decided to tell some of his colleagues. Sadly, the reaction he received from a few of his colleagues meant that he immediately became closeted about his status and fearful of anyone else finding out for fear of rejection and exclusion.  

‘Comments such as, ‘we will need to be careful to wash the mugs and keep them separated’ made me feel dirty and re-enforced some dangerous myths around the virus and how it is spread. I certainly didn’t want to tell anybody else at work and there was no necessity to do so.’ 

It wasn’t until around 2017 when the U=U campaign started that the narrative started to change. This campaign pushed the important news that if you are HIV undetectable then you cannot pass the virus to anybody. Having been on medication since 2007, Joe had been undetectable for a long period of time, so this was a huge game changer for him. For the first time ever, he was able to freely speak about his status with people, knowing that the stigma was finally starting to erode.  

Passionate about changing the stigma further Joe led the way in organising the inaugural Isle of Wight Pride in 2017, followed swiftly in hosting UK Pride in 2018 and this is where he met the amazing Jonathan Blake (the third person in the UK to be diagnosed with HIV in the early 1980s) who was helping to run the U=U campaign. Jonathan became a great friend of Joe’s and helped him fully come to terms with his diagnoses and recognise that he can now live a full, happy and long life.  

‘I now know that if I continue with my medication, that I will live as long, if not longer than if I did not have the virus. I get tested at least twice a year and this will pick up any issues that I may not have picked up on if I was not having regular tests. I am also happy living in the knowledge that it is impossible for me to pass the virus onto anybody else. I am also happy that with medical advancements, there may one day be a cure.’ 

Joe doesn’t want anyone else to go through what he went through those first few months after being diagnosed. He’s showing real courage by sharing this story to continue fighting the stigma still experienced by some people living with HIV. This will be the first time many of his colleagues will first hear the news, but he wants to #RockTheRibbon loudly and proudly to end stigma surrounding HIV.   

‘Whilst I haven’t told any of my colleagues, all of whom will be reading this information for the first time ever, writing this article is not an issue for me as I do not feel is necessary to directly tell them about my status. Much in the same way many people don’t go around actively telling others that they have a bad knee or hay fever. For me it is something that is controlled by medication, doesn’t impact on my life at all (apart from being unable to visit some countries that I have no intention of anyway!) and is not something to be ashamed of.’ 

Are you ready to say ‘Rock the Ribbon’ this World AIDS Day?  

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