Correction:

The article misidentified a blind man who broke a barrier for State Department employees with disabilities. His name is Rami Rabby, not Avram Rabey. This version has been corrected.

Disabled but determined, U.S. diplomat Jeffrey Glassman sues over forced retirement

The Glassman home in Northwest Washington is a pleasant jumble of children’s drawings, dog toys, piles of papers and shelves of exotic mementos — Russian dolls, African figurines — that suggest the active, globe-trotting life of a diplomat and his family.

But there are contradictory hints amid the clutter — a custom-built elevator in the kitchen, a bathroom shower with handrails and a chair — that suggest a sedentary life of limits and liabilities.

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.”

The process of advancement there is so byzantine that even Glassman’s supporters say that his charges may be very hard to prove. Whether he wins or loses, however, Glassman’s crusade raises important questions that critics say the government has failed to fully address, even as President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have eloquently vowed to combat discrimination against the disabled in federal service.

What makes a diplomat fit to serve? Does a U.S. official with a severe disability help or hurt America’s image overseas? Can coddling someone with a handicap undermine his career instead? Finally, should serving in dangerous lands, at a time of multiple American wars, be a reward for some diplomats and an obstacle for others?

To Glassman, this is far more than a legal fight over lost pay and denied promotions. It is part of his larger, daily struggle to salvage some normalcy, dignity and recognition from a once-fulfilling life that is now painfully circumscribed.

“I wanted a real job. I wanted to be challenged and show what I could do,” he recounts, typing the words on his laptop in his dining room. “Everyone wanted me on paper, but when I went for the interview, they would change their minds. Nobody wants a cripple.” He glances up with a wry grin. “It would look bad for the office.”

‘Worldwide available’

In 1984, a bright young lawyer from Holyoke, Mass., joined the freshman ranks of America’s diplomatic corps. Then a bachelor in his 30s, Jeffrey Glassman longed for a more exciting career. With a degree in Soviet history, he dreamed of becoming an ambassador in Moscow or Eastern Europe.

He was eager to take on the State Department’s rigorous “up or out” system, in which Foreign Service officers had to “bid” competitively for every job and win a series of promotions within certain time frames or face forced retirement.

Athletic, quick-witted and facile with foreign languages, he was in every sense “worldwide available” — agency lingo meaning ready to serve in the most remote, harsh or dangerous outposts.

At first, he moved swiftly through a series of rewarding jobs: an administrative post at the U.S. Embassy in Liberia, then a consular position in Moscow, then back to Washington, where he won praise for his human rights work with Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union.

As a promising diplomat, he was sent to Columbia University for a master’s degree in international affairs. In 1992, after the Soviet Union collapsed, he was assigned to help set up the new U.S. Embassy in Minsk. “It was an enormous challenge with a lot of responsibility,” he recalled proudly. “I enjoyed it a lot.”

In 1996, another plum assignment opened up at the U.S. mission to the United Nations. Glassman lobbied successfully for the job and said he received high praise from the ambassador, Madeleine K. Albright, who would later become secretary of state. Albright declined to comment for this article.

Glassman’s personal life took a happy turn as well. A colleague introduced him to Elana, an outgoing classical singer. They soon fell in love and got married at New York’s City Hall.

A friend captured the moment in a snapshot, now framed in the Glassmans’ living room. The newlyweds are beaming and he has his arm around her. By then, though, they both knew something was terribly wrong.

The first warning came when Glassman stumbled on the tennis court. Then his finger slipped when he was playing the piano. His voice started to slur, and he worried that people at parties would think he was drunk. He went to several doctors, who had no idea what was wrong.

When he finally obtained a definitive diagnosis in 1996, it was devastating. He had developed PLS, a non-fatal disease that causes the gradual deterioration of motor functions. It is a close cousin of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the illness suffered by British physicist Stephen Hawking, of which the patient eventually dies.

“For a long time I didn’t tell anyone,” Glassman said. “I had never been sick a day in my life, and suddenly they said I had an incurable disease. What do you do with that kind of information?”

He did tell Elana, and she had to adjust fast. Within a few months after their wedding, she recounted, “he went from using one cane to two canes to a wheelchair.” By the time their daughter, Shira, was born, two years later, his speech was badly garbled.

The impact on Glassman’s career was less immediate and more subtle. He had sympathetic patrons, including Edward Gnehm, then director general of the Foreign Service, who he said arranged a series of jobs for him in Washington that did not require competitive bidding.

As his symptoms became more severe, Glassman was also provided with a variety of services, including office renovations and full-time aides. He had a device that read out his speeches and an electric scooter that carried him along the polished corridors of the State Department.

But Glassman wanted more than a sheltered sinecure. He wanted to push the system further, to test its commitment to talented but disabled officers. He also needed to prove his own worth to himself.

“I have almost everything that makes a good Foreign Service officer. I have judgment and experience, I can write well, I’m persistent and I’m patient. The only thing I don’t have is speech,” he said at home one morning, with Elana translating.

“I know I am in a profession where every word matters,” he acknowledged. “But people want to hear what the United States has to say. If I am in a meeting and I am representing the United States, people will listen.”

In 2004, Glassman became a special assistant at a U.S. mission in Vienna, a posting he and his family loved. His supervisor, in a formal evaluation, described him as a “shining example of our country’s values.” His leadership under “extreme adversity,” the official wrote, “puts Jeff above any other FSO I have ever met.”

Back in Washington, though, trouble was building. There were disputes over paying for his travel and housing, and some officials began questioning the risks of sending him abroad. According to Glassman, various jobs he sought either vanished, changed or went to others. The U.S. attorneys’ court filings note only that he held a series of posts in various countries; they do not discuss the process.

Meanwhile, he was running out of time to be promoted to the top service rank — known as FS-01 — or face mandatory retirement. In a way, the well-intentioned efforts to provide him with comfortable niches had also worked against him in the Foreign Service meritocracy.

“A lot of people tried to help Jeff,” said a retired ambassador who worked closely with Glassman, “but he still felt set up to fail.”

In 2007, he bid for a post at NATO in Brussels, which could earn him precious points toward promotion. He and another final candidate went head to head in a contest known as a “shootout” in diplomatic circles. The other man had served in Iraq, giving him extra credit. But to Glassman’s delight, he was told he had won.

A changing service

The Foreign Service, once a WASPy gentlemen’s club, had evolved considerably by the time Glassman joined in the 1980s. As laws and society changed, women and minorities joined the service’s ranks. The State Department also began hiring applicants with disabilities for civil service jobs in Washington, especially after the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 banned discrimination based on disability in all federal agencies.

Even so, disabled individuals faced daunting barriers to entering the more prestigious Foreign Service. One was the requirement — a litmus test of diplomatic culture — that all new officers had to be “worldwide available.”

It took a lawsuit by Rami Rabby, a highly educated blind man, to crack open the door. With help from a congressman, he was admitted to the Foreign Service in 1987 and went on to stints in Peru, India and South Africa, accompanied by a sighted assistant. There were a few glitches, but Rabby, now retired, says he was generally well-treated.

“I was lucky, because I had a career development officer who believed in me,” he said from London. “When you employ people with disabilities, you have to establish what they’re capable of and then help them reach it.”

Today, the State Department is strongly committed to hiring and integrating employees with disabilities. In May, Clinton declared that her agency is “making the inclusion of persons with disabilities an important element of our policies and practices” within the diplomatic service.

The department offers an array of services for people with limited vision, hearing or mobility. It sends experts abroad to help U.S. missions install special equipment, and it is also supposed to recruit disabled individuals, guide them through the bureaucracy and match them with job vacancies.

But while diplomats and advocates agree the department has worked hard to meet the physical needs of handicapped employees, some feel it has dodged the thornier questions of how much visibility, responsibility and opportunity to give them — issues at the heart of Glassman’s suit.

“The department takes quite seriously the need to accommodate people [in] helping them overcome handicaps,” said Gnehm, now a professor at George Washington University. But when it comes to assignments and promotions, he said, “there are gray areas, ambiguous areas, where it is hard to know how decisions are made.”

According to people familiar with the process, each appointment and promotion involves a complex equation, including a paper trail of performance reviews and a subjective sense of the candidate, sometimes referred to as a “corridor reputation.” All decisions are made behind closed doors.

“The promotion process is far more opaque than it should be,” said Daniel Hirsch, director of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents some 14,000 members and helped Glassman with his case. “It is not easy to detect bias, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur.”

In theory, a medical handicap is not allowed to be part of the equation, but several diplomats said it can still color decisions. Some officials may give overly glowing reviews to protect themselves from being accused of bias. Others may tend to assign disabled people to easier jobs out of protectiveness, prejudice, or both.

Glassman’s corridor reputation was increasingly intertwined with his disability. He was respected and admired, but he was also known as a persistent pain in the neck. It is impossible to know how this affected his career, but Rabby offered clues from his own years as a blind diplomat.

“In my experience, you get ahead in the Foreign Service by networking and knowing people,” he said. “If you don’t get a certain post or promotion, he added, “no one will ever admit it is because of your disability. They will always find another reason.”

A career ends

Glassman’s euphoria over the NATO post lasted only a few days. First, he recounted, an embassy official called and asked him to withdraw his bid, saying the job was too “fast-paced” for him. When he refused, he said he was informed that he would be sent to a consulate in South Africa instead.

Glassman was furious. He said he suspected the decision, although perhaps “well-intentioned,” was “based on speculation that my disabilities would prevent me from doing the job . . . without giving me an opportunity to respond.”

The U.S. attorney’s office described Glassman’s entire career in its dismissal motion, but did not mention this episode at all. It stressed that he was medically approved to serve in many difficult posts, and said that there was no indication that his handicaps had worked against his being promoted.

But Glassman saw the NATO incident as part of a “pattern” that developed as his disability became more pronounced. At first, he said, officials would be eager to interview him for a job after reading his evaluations. “But when I showed up with a cane or on a scooter,” he wrote, “enthusiasm for my candidacy would suddenly vanish.”

As a result, Glassman asserted that it is “extremely difficult for a disabled person to win a bidding war” for desirable Foreign Service posts, because officials always have plenty of “able-bodied” candidates to choose over the “hassle of dealing with a handicapped FSO” — and no obligation to explain their choice.

In the end, he accepted the job in Cape Town, and he and Elana moved there with their children, household goods and specially equipped van. The cultural and political terrain were new, but he worked hard and learned fast.

In early 2007, Glassman filed a formal grievance with the State Department, trying to stave off his forced retirement. He asked that he be promoted to FS-01, that all disabled officers be given extra time to reach that rank, and that the department improve its affirmative action program.

After a year in Cape Town, his supervisor recommended him strongly for the promotion. He described Glassman as a smart, personable and astute analyst. “Jeff demonstrates leadership capacity every day,” he wrote. “His physical and moral courage are on display every day.”

But the glowing review came too late. In December, the State Department denied his grievance. He was ordered to retire, and the family reluctantly moved back to Washington. In 2008, Glassman left the diplomatic service. In 2010, he sued.

“We are a great Foreign Service family, and my husband was an extraordinary Foreign Service officer. What they did to us was so unfair,” said Elana, now Glassman’s full-time caregiver, interpreter and advocate. “The world sees him differently now, but he has never changed the way he feels about himself.”

Man vs. mission

While Glassman has talked and written in detail about his case, the State Department has been unusually tight-lipped, making the official side of the story much harder to tell. The privacy of the personnel process makes it almost impossible to know what factors influenced various decisions about his career.

The case has been muddied by two other issues. One was Glassman’s demand that the State Department do more to comply with federal disability laws. The government argued that he had no individual standing to raise this broad issue, and Judge Collyer agreed, so it will not be part of any trial.

The second was Glassman’s assertion that his career was harmed by the special preferences given to diplomats who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he did not have medical clearance to work. The government argued that legally, the benefit to others did not cause direct harm to him, but the judge ruled that the issue can be raised at trial.

The U.S. attorney’s office, along with its motion to dismiss the lawsuit, submitted a 37-page memo that outlined Glassman’s career and presented legal arguments against his main complaints.

The memo did not offer a competing version of key events Glassman has described as harming his advancement, but it said he had been found fit to serve in a wide variety of posts and had been duly considered for promotion to FS-01 many times.

The most sensitive issue for the State Department in promoting disabled employees is whether sending a handicapped diplomat overseas can lead to misunderstanding or embarrassment, make him vulnerable to attack, or involve costly accommodations for someone who may not be able to handle the job.

“I think the world of Jeff’s capabilities, but I’m also sympathetic to the department’s point of view,” said a retired ambassador who asked not to be identified. “Someone like Jeff can do serious work in Washington, but it gets more challenging overseas. If you have 28 people in a room conversing, that would be difficult for him,” he said.

For department officials, it can be tricky to weigh the personal ambitions of a Jeffrey Glassman against the institutional and legal concerns of a high-profile agency. A supervisor may be reluctant to malign someone for being disabled, the former envoy said, “but they also don’t want to impede the mission’s ability to get the job done.”

It is the government’s thinking on such subjective questions, normally aired only in the inner sanctums of power, that Glassman wants the world to hear in a federal court.

Everyday challenges

Jeffrey and Elana Glassman have worked hard to preserve a normal family life, even though his disability creates constant hurdles. Their schedule revolves around school for Shira, 12, Sammy, 9, and Moses, 6, and Jewish services on weekends. Lately, Glassman has also begun a part-time job editing reports at home as a State Department retiree.

The couple also try to maintain a social life, which presents even greater challenges. One September evening, they decided to go out for dinner and a movie in Bethesda, while Shira babysat for the boys.

It was chilly, and Elana handed Jeff a pullover sweater. He was determined to put it on without help, which meant he had to grab the edge with cramped fingers and pull it up slowly, an inch at a time, until his head popped through. By the time he was done, his face was flushed.

Next, Elana went out to get the van ready, dragging down the metal wheelchair ramps. Glassman, who once loved taking his family on long country drives, can no longer trust his reflexes, so Elana has taken over that role.

Still, he takes pride in being able to maneuver his inert legs into the van. Grabbing the door handle, he pulled himself up from the chair, twisted his crippled frame and, with a spasm of effort, flopped backwards onto the seat.

“It’s a challenge, but I’ve always liked challenges,” he said triumphantly.

Earlier in the evening, Glassman was asked what he would do if he loses his case and his life remains as it now — measured in small victories over the mundane, rather than by the far-flung intellectual achievements of a diplomatic career.

He stared into space for a moment, then recovered and glanced up with a sly twinkle in his eye.

“Well, I can’t play golf like other retirees,” he said. “But I guess I’d just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

 
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