Both sets of clues lead to Jeffrey Glassman, 58. He is a sharp-witted Foreign Service veteran and a midlife victim of the rare, degenerative disease called primary lateral sclerosis, or PLS, which has left him barely able to walk or talk. Glassman, whose career took him from Moscow to Cape Town, now spends most of his time at home in a wheelchair, tapping out e-mails at the dining-room table.
He is there one fall morning, surrounded by documents and untouched coffee cups. His wife, Elana, hovers protectively nearby, and their three young children are watching TV in the den.
“I love my work, and I’m still very good at it,” Glassman says with a determined glint in his eye. But the words are almost unintelligible. Grunting with frustration, he tries again. A few recognizable syllables emerge from a long, thick croak.
“I wwwwwwwaaaaaaaaaaaaant my yob back,” he rasps. “Id da law.” Finally giving up, he nods at Elana and she translates.
In addition to fighting an incurable illness, Glassman is battling the federal government, which forced him to retire four years ago. In 2010, he sued the State Department for discrimination, claiming that it repeatedly denied him chances to move up the diplomatic ladder — even as it bent over backward to accommodate his physical needs.
He also sued on behalf of all Foreign Service officers with disabilities, demanding that the department do more to help them navigate a competitive system and develop a better affirmative action program as required by federal disability laws.
In late September, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer dismissed that part of Glassman’s suit, but she ordered the case to proceed on his personal claim of discrimination, based in part on policies that favored diplomats in war-zone jobs.
The State Department has hired numerous people with handicaps, but Glassman is the most severely disabled person ever to have attempted to remain in the Foreign Service, an elite agency responsible for communicating the policies and values of America overseas.
Although no current State Department official was willing to talk publicly about Glassman’s case, several former diplomats said they could understand the dilemmas faced by the department in trying to balance its legal and moral responsibility to handicapped diplomats with other concerns about risk, effectiveness and image.
U.S. attorneys, who are representing the State Department in the case, also would not comment. But in a motion to dismiss the suit, they asserted that Glassman’s “career path cannot be characterized as being the result of discriminatory conduct.”