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.”