State to End Severe Restrictions on Disabled Individuals Entering Foreign Service
The department will pay out $37.5 million as part of a settlement that will make it easier for people with disabilities to serve in the government's diplomatic corps abroad.
The State Department is lowering the medical threshold job applicants must meet to qualify for Foreign Service positions, the agency announced on Monday, making it easier for disabled individuals to serve in roles from which they were previously prohibited.
The change marks the implementation of a settlement agreement stemming from a lawsuit that disabled employees launched in 2006, who alleged State was engaging in discriminatory behavior by blocking their candidacies. The new policy will no longer require employees to receive medical clearance to serve at any State post in the world, which employees and advocates said essentially created a ban on most people with disabilities working in Foreign Service jobs. Under the new policy, agreed to in the Meyer v. State settlement, employees will only have to be cleared to work—with or without accommodations—in the four best-resourced posts such as London and Singapore.
“These changes will provide persons with disabilities with more opportunities to pursue Foreign Service careers at the Department of State,” the agency said on Monday. “The revised minimum medical qualification standard is consistent with the secretary’s unequivocal commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility at the department and is an important step in reducing barriers to serve in the Foreign Service.”
Doering Meyer, who has Multiple Sclerosis and represented a class of more than 200 individuals at least initially denied Foreign Service jobs due to their disabilities, and State reached an agreement in December after years of appeals and negotiations. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission signed off on the agreement on Friday and will monitor its implementation for the next five years. Bryan Schwartz, the lead attorney representing the class, noted Meyer previously received a waiver to receive a Foreign Service job, and her current post in N’djamena, Chad, proves disabled employees are more than capable of serving in difficult positions.
There may be some posts where certain employees cannot serve, Schwartz said, such as a person with respiratory illness who cannot go somewhere with poor air quality. The standard that any employee receive a “class one” medical clearance certifying they have no medical issue that could prevent them from serving anywhere abroad, he added, was never reasonable.
“Looking at whether someone could serve in 300 posts is a false standard that eliminated almost all people with disabilities from serving in the Foreign Service,” Schwartz said.
Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, noted there was never a direct ban on people with disabilities serving in foreign posts for State, saying he served with several such colleagues over his long career. He agreed the standard was overly restrictive, however, and said it created a presumption that anyone with disabilities could not work in the Foreign Service.
AFSA had some reservations about the settlement as it was being negotiated as it looked to ensure it would not place an undue burden on existing employees to spend more time in danger or hardship posts. Such concerns have been alleviated, Rubin said, as the agreement requires all employees, disabled or not, to serve in posts all around the world.
“You have to be able to go overseas and you have to go overseas, otherwise you shouldn’t be in the Foreign Service,” Rubin said. The agreement makes that clear and therefore “has been welcomed very broadly and very warmly by members of the Foreign Service.”
In many cases, the former ambassador noted, employees cannot serve in posts abroad not because of general conditions in the country but instead due to the accessibility of State Department buildings. He recalled several of his government housings abroad that had many stairs and were therefore not accessible, but he said State is working to ensure its embassies, consulates and at least some housing options at every post address that problem.
As part of the settlement, nearly 100 applicants will automatically receive Foreign Service job offers, while several more individuals will have a new opportunity to start the oral assessment process. State will also pay out $37.5 million to members of the class, with most receiving around $150,000.
State fought the lawsuit for more than a decade before agreeing to settle, despite the 1973 Rehabilitation Act prohibiting federal agencies from denying jobs to applicants on the basis of their disability. After suffering repeated losses that spanned multiple administrations, State finally agreed to accept a new standard for allowing disabled individuals to serve. Applicants will still have to meet a minimum medical threshold to join the Foreign Service—based on conditions at the department’s four Regional Medical Evacuation Centers, which are generally accessible and well staffed—with assessments made by their own doctors and State’s Bureau of Medical Services.
“The State Department, to their credit, will now embrace a whole new approach,” Schwartz said, adding there are an untold number of people who were dissuaded from ever applying to Foreign Service jobs on the assumption they would not be permitted to do so. “It’s nothing short of opening the Foreign Service as a career path to people with disabilities.”