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HIV Stops With Me

Acting on Borrowed Time


Living with the specter of death gave Joseph Kibler, a disabled, HIV-positive actor, the drive to make a difference with his life.

If there's one thing that 28-year-old actor Joseph Kibler learned early in his life, it was to live in the moment -- and live life to its fullest.

"My big thing was living each year like it was my last, because I thought that's what it was," recalls Kibler, who along with his twin-brother, was born with HIV. "I always felt very grateful... even nowadays, I joke I'm like on 24 years of borrowed time, because I was told I wasn't going to live past 4."

In addition to being born poz, Kibler was also born with impaired physical development. Doctors predicted that he would never walk and wasn't likely to live beyond his fourth birthday. Not only does Kibler walk (he went from a wheelchair, to a walker, to crutches, to a cane by the time he was 18) but he has triumphantly outlived that grim prediction. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Kibler continues to thrive in his life and career.

Ironically Kibler thanks those very obstacles for giving him the kind of wisdom and clarity that's unusual for someone his age.

"If I'm already going this far past what I was supposed to do, then those years... they have to mean something. I've got to do something meaningful with them."

Not surprisingly, having the specter of death hanging over his head forced Kibler to grow up a lot faster than other kids. He recalls often having trouble relating to normal teen angst.

"Other kids were worried about like 'Oh, my parents' and 'my curfew' and... 'I don't get to go do this'--and I'm like, 'You know what? I'm just glad I'm in class right now talking to you,'" he remembers with a laugh. "Like, it really changes your perspective."

The actor, who starred in the documentary Walk On, and has appeared in numerous TV shows, including Chicago Med and Criminal Minds, says he first caught the acting bug completely by accident. After being discouraged from taking a mechanic class in high school (by an administration worried about their potential liability), Kibler jests, "They just threw me into a theater class... and I fell in love."

He remembers what he enjoyed most about his newfound passion: "I started getting people to see me--because not only do I have HIV, but I'm disabled. I got to finally get people to look at me in a different way, because I was playing a character."

But the truth was, other kids hadn't been seeing his HIV, in fact, Kibler admits.

"Up until this point, I hadn't told anyone that I was HIV-positive because I was still afraid," he admits.

But at a theater camp, he recalls, "They had an exercise that you go up on stage and tell the audience, or peers, something you've never told anyone before, as a way to break you through getting stage fright. And it was the first time I had gone up on a stage -- in front of 40 or so students -- and said, 'My name's Joseph Kibler and I'm HIV-positive.'"

Kibler says, "The overwhelming support I got from them, and love I felt from that crew really made it easy and... I've never looked back. And all I ever wanted to be was an actor after that point."

And Kibler has been finding success in pursuing that dream. His rapidly growing resume includes stints on Re-Casting Kyle, Criminal Minds, and CSI: Cyber. Still, being a disabled actor does have its challenges, says Kibler.

"I always feel like I'm not disabled enough for the disabled roles, and I'm too disabled for the able-bodied roles," he jokes. Kibler also finds it amusing that, despite his love of comedy, he's become somewhat typecast as a villain--but says he does enjoy a juicy bad guy role because "that's so not me."

In addition to his acting, Kibler is starting to work behind the scenes as a writer, producer, and casting director.

"In order to get media out there that is poignant, that has my perspective, I've got to [be] both behind the scenes and in front of the camera for it," he says.

He coproduced the 2013 documentary Walk On, aimed at dispelling stigmas and stereotypes around people with disabilities.

"My big thing is changing people's perceptions... whether it's [about] disabilities or HIV." He's currently doing that by writing a film script about "two disabled people falling in love, who have different perspectives of what it means to be disabled."

Kibler says that by merely continuing to pursue his own dreams, he is in turn helping others who face similar challenges. Just "showing that I am a person who is disabled, who is HIV-positive, doing things in the world -- that are positive, that are impactful, that are creative -- is something in itself."

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