Mitchell Atalla was a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Florida in 1967 when he wrote to the U.S. Department of State for an application to the Foreign Service. To pin the Foreign Service was his lifelong dream.
But when he received a detailed questionnaire from the department listing the physical requirements, he dejectedly gave up. One of the physical disqualifications was a “limited range of arm motion.” Atalla was an amputee, having lost an arm in an occupational accident. Many young Americans over the years have experienced the State Department’s deplorable version of the “Ugly American.” They have either never applied for the Foreign Service or have been rejected because of physical disfigurements which have nothing to do with the ability to perform one or more of the jobs there.
CONSIDER, IF you will, some of the disqualifying conditions contained in the State Department’s Guide for Foreign Service Medical Examiners: “scars which are unsightly,” “acne, severe,” “any deformity which is markedly unsightly . . .,” drooping eyelids, absence of an
eye, scars, deformities of the fingers or hand which make the individual “objectionable in ordinary social relationships.”
Dr. William Watson, the State Department’s medical director, says that, while he does not know the situation of everyone in the Foreign Service (nearly 10,000 people), he “cannot cite an instance of anyone serving overseas in a wheel chair” and cannot name one amputee in the Foreign Service.
The State Department has two responses to criticisms of such disqualifying standards: One is to say that Foreign Service personnel have to deal with many stressful conditions overseas of a physical and psychological or cultural nature. Medical fitness criteria, including appearance standards, are considered necessary.
BUT LATELY THE department has been retreating somewhat, taking care to add that the physical standards are being revised and that some of the cosmetic disfigurements will probably be deleted. It is also pointed out that amputees will now no longer be categorically excluded but will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Well, it remains to be seen whether the State Department’s anticipated revisions, due later this year, will themselves be cosmetic or a real advance. All over the country, physically disabled people are demanding an end to discriminatory employment practices. They know and can perform the tasks that are required. They rightly call for an end to physical standards that are “socially objectionable” or have little or no relation to actual living and working conditions as in most Foreign Service posts.
They are too modest, moreover, to point out that this country should be proud to have such courageous people overseas as examples of a nation that values high standards of performance over such arbitrary disqualifications.
PAUL MESMER, of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, would not say, when interviewed, whether there was an issue of legality to the State Department’s criteria. Unsightliness standards are quite subjective, he said, with different people reaching different conclusions.
Specific regulations have yet to be issued under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 for the employment of handicapped people by executive agencies.