With a disability, what is 'around the world'?

Foreign Service officer Doering Meyer, who has MS, says State policies are discriminatory.
Foreign Service officer Doering Meyer, who has MS, says State policies are discriminatory.
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Joe Davidson
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Should medical conditions prevent State Department applicants from joining the Foreign Service if they can't serve in every single post in the world?

Doering Meyer is functional in Turkish, speaks some Arabic and has lived abroad, where she bolstered a strong interest in Islam and foreign affairs.

Despite that background, when she applied to be a Foreign Service officer, State said no because she has a history of multiple sclerosis. Meyer was able to secure a waiver that allows her to work in some places.

Waiver or not, Meyer says she thinks State's practice results in an unfair bias against people with certain ailments and violates federal anti-discrimination laws that require employers to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. That word alone exaggerates Meyer's condition.

"The impact of the State Department's failure to provide the required individualized consideration is profound," said Bryan J. Schwartz, her Oakland, Calif., lawyer. "The State Department, virtually, without exception, does not hire FSOs with disabilities, records of disabilities and perceived disabilities."

Speaking by phone from Alberta, where she is stationed, Meyer said she "was very demoralized" when she was first rejected. "I had worked so hard to get to that point, and then to be told I can't do the job because I have this label, this disease that had been in remission. . . . It just seems so wrong."

State, she said, was "not even looking at me as a person."

The State Department said it does hire people with disabilities into the Foreign Service and "has been doing so for years. In addition, the Department provides reasonable accommodations. When persons can serve worldwide with reasonable accommodation, they are eligible to be hired into the Foreign Service."

For Meyer, her MS is more of a label than a reality. She said that she has had no symptoms for about 10 years and that her doctor gave her the green light to live abroad.

"I do not, at this point, see any reason why the patient could not work overseas," Craig L. Hyser, a Saint Paul, Minn., neurologist wrote in a 2006 letter. "She has had a benign course of multiple sclerosis to date and does not have any significant disability."

But that benign course was enough to block her application. With Schwartz's help, Meyer was able to secure a waiver that allowed her to join the Foreign Service. The waiver, however, grants her a more restrictive Class 2 designation rather than a Class 1, which would allow her to be posted anywhere in the world.

In papers filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the department said Foreign Service officers must be available to serve everywhere. Against State's wishes, the EEOC certified the case as a class action this month.

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