People with MS now eligible for US Foreign Service

Settlement of suit against the US Department of State includes other disabilities

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by Mary Chapman |

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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has approved a class settlement overhauling a decades-old medical clearance system that led to illegal discrimination in the U.S. Foreign Service against people with mental health conditions or other disabilities, such as multiple sclerosis (MS).

The class settlement, signed in December, was for the “Meyer, et al versus Blinken (U.S. Department of State)” case, which began in 2006.

Under the aegis of the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Foreign Service consists of thousands of professionals responsible for helping to carry out the nation’s foreign policies and assisting U.S. citizens abroad.

The lawsuit included qualified individuals who applied for the Foreign Service starting on Oct. 7, 2006, and were denied employment because, due to their disability, the State Department deemed them not “worldwide available” for service. It also covered those whose employment was delayed pending application for, and receipt of, a waiver due to their disability.

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“In the past, people with disabilities were stereotyped as unable to serve their country in the Foreign Service. They were considered too risky to send abroad,” Bryan Schwartz, lead class counsel, said in a press release.

These people “were, in fact, able and willing to serve with distinction. Through this important case, we have given them that opportunity,” Schwartz added.

The settlement, and its sweeping policy change, yielded more than 100 immediate employment opportunities for applicants, all of whom have a disability, a record of such, or a perceived disability. Further, it means a $37.5 million payment to these people, which amounts to an average individual payout of more than $150,000 for most claimants.

Before settlement approval, people with disabilities had to meet a State Department worldwide availability requirement to demonstrate the ability to serve in locations with poor resources. Now, all applicants must be able to serve at posts in locations with top resources, with or without reasonable accommodations, and in consultation with the individuals and their physicians.

Certified in 2010, the lawsuit withstood two State Department appeals in 2014 and 2015. It included emotional stories from class members who had hoped to engage in public service.

One such member was MS patient Doering Meyer, who worked with legal counsel to ultimately receive a rare waiver for her condition that allowed her to work in some locations.

Meyer, named in the suit as a class agent, was at first denied employment in the Foreign Service, despite physician statements that she was able to serve. She is currently posted in N’djamena, Chad, and has been with the Foreign Service for 15 years.

She said she had been 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 wrong,” Meyer told The Washington Post in 2010.

The settlement’s approval marks a new era for the U.S. Foreign Service.

“The effect is no less than opening the career Foreign Service — the face of America abroad — to people with disabilities. We are immensely proud to have reached this day,” Schwartz said.

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