THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
The Foreign Service and a Girl Named Alex
BY J I M PATTERSON
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
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
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-
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
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
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
. 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
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,
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