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.
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.”