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The Foreign Service and a Girl Named Alex



Jim Patterson, a retired FSO

and AFSA life member, is

a contributor toTheHill.

com and writes on technology from his San

Francisco office. He is a member of DACOR,

the Society of Historians of American Foreign

Relations and the California State Society. He

blogs at


he 25th anniversary of the

Americans with Disabilities Act

last year was an important occa-

sion for all Americans. When

he signed the ADA into law on July 26,

1990, former President George H.W. Bush

declared that the shameful wall of exclu-

sion for the disabled should come down.

My daughter Alexandra was born at

Arlington Hospital in 1989. When a nurse

recognized Alex had a circulatory problem,

she was quickly transferred to Georgetown

University Hospital.

The surgeon explained that Alex’s

arteries were transposed and she needed

immediate heart surgery.

Based on the enormity of the cardiac

problem and the smallness of Alex, I could

not believe she would survive. She sur-

vived surgery that early Marchmorning in

1989, as well as several other surgeries, but

required a long recovery period.

I was in the Foreign Service, which by

law required that not only diplomats be

“able bodied,” but our children as well.

Alex’s health was not an immediate prob-

lem, however.

Meanwhile, the ADA became law, and

Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act

of 1973 to include all of its legal protec-

tions for the disabled, including protec-

tion from associational discrimination,

The ADA and Alex were born about

the same time. Both made important

contributions to disability rights.

on Oct. 30, 1992.

In February 1993 senior diplomats

moved to force me out of the Foreign

Service and into the Civil Service. Their

reason was Alex. Fighting for her life, Alex

was, they said, an insurance burden to the

Foreign Service.

Later, as I looked at Alex lying in her

small hospital bed with tubes, monitors

and 24-hour nurses, I determined to fight

my dismissal from the Foreign Service. I

thought Alex would grow to be an adult

with a disability whomight face less

discrimination if, as her father, I refused to

accept associational discrimination and

my dismissal.

I fought like hell for three years, until

senior diplomats changed their “final,”

“non-appealable” and “irreversible” dis-

criminatory decision the day after a 1,000-

word article on Alex appeared in the


York Times

. I went frombeing a workplace

pariah to being an accepted disability

rights activist, but at a heavy personal toll.

While fighting disability discrimination, I

became disabled with depression.

In a 1997 letter, State’s disabled

Assistant Secretary of Equal Employment

Opportunity and Civil Rights Deidre Davis

toldme the department had delinked

medical clearances of dependents from

an applicant’s appointment to the Foreign

Service. No qualified candidate with a dis-

ability or disabled child could be rejected

from serving America regardless of the

severity of the disability.

Alex died in 2006. She was a brave and

beautiful young woman.

Early in 2015, I sent Alex’s picture and

a letter to former President George H.W.

Bush and to President Barack Obama

explaining how the ADA helped Alex dur-

ing her brief 17 years. I included a quote

from actress Helen Hayes: “Childhood is a

short season.”

A response from former President

Bush, himself the father of a disabled child

who passed away too soon, came in late

July. “I particularly enjoyed the picture of

Alex. What a lovely young girl,” Pres. Bush

said. “I do think [the ADA] made a differ-

ence inmany lives.”

It sure did. So didmy little girl Alex,

forever 17.

A few days later, I received a response

from the Obama White House: “Your

words and Alex’s story will remain in

my thoughts. Her life is a testament to

the belief that all people—regardless of

physical ability—have something special

to contribute to the American story, and

her legacy is a part of our journey toward

greater access, opportunity and inclusion

for all people.”

Time and chance make people and can

change cruel policies and hearts. The ADA

and Alex were born about the same time.

Bothmade important contributions to

disability rights for future Foreign Service