The State Department has finalized changes expected to it easier for people with disabilities to join the Foreign Service.

The department is setting a new standard of medical clearance for prospective diplomats, as part of a settlement in a lawsuit spanning nearly two decades.

The department is implementing these changes — and paid more than $37 million to settle claims of disability discrimination — after it rejected or delayed hiring more than 230 individuals who were unable to obtain a “Class 1” or “Worldwide Available” medical clearance.

Jameela Akbari, the acting deputy assistant secretary of the department’s Bureau of Global Talent Management, said in an interview that the terms of the settlement build on the department’s efforts to develop a workforce “that is more inclusive and representative of the American people.”

“For the department to truly be reflective of the American public, we need to ensure that we have people with disabilities in the Foreign Service,” Akbari said, adding that the settlement will allow more people with disabilities to pursue a career in the Foreign Service.

About 8% of the department’s full-time permanent Foreign Service officers have a disability. Nearly 12% of Foreign Service specialists — including medical providers, IT workers and Diplomatic Security personnel — have a disability.

Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said the reforms outlined in the settlement are “long overdue,” considering that individuals with disabilities have served in some of the most challenging posts overseas.

“What this does is it changes the requirements for entry, because we’ve always accommodated people who develop disabilities after they joined the Foreign Service. They’ve never been forced to resign,” Rubin said.

Bryan Schwartz, an attorney representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the terms of the settlement will reverse a longstanding “discriminatory regime” that prevented applicants with disabilities from serving abroad.

“This settlement means nothing less than opening the Foreign Service to people with disabilities, who previously were prohibited from a career in the Foreign Service. And for many people, it’s a dream career,” Schwartz said.

The State Department’s new policy under the settlement requires Foreign Service applicants to meet a “minimum medical qualification standard” that would allow them to serve at designated Regional Medical Evacuation Centers, which are currently in Bangkok, London, Pretoria and Singapore.

Akbari said those four posts have “deep medical resources,” compared to other posts overseas. However, she said those four posts are a floor, not a ceiling, for where incoming Foreign Service officers with disabilities can serve.

“We do agree with the notion that it has to be a floor, not a ceiling,” Rubin said. “Our experience is that people with disabilities have already served in very difficult and dangerous posts, including in Kabul and Baghdad. I’ve worked with people with disabilities in various posts around the world, so this is not something new.”

New Foreign Service officers generally serve their first two tours wherever the department needs them. After that, employees are able to bid on their next assignment.

Akbari said Foreign Service officers with disabilities would have the same ability to bid on hardship posts as any other applicant.

The department defines these posts as locations with “extraordinarily difficult living conditions, excessive physical hardship, or notably unhealthful conditions affecting the majority of employees officially stationed or detailed at that place.”

“It would be the same considerations that would [apply] for an employee without a disability — whether there’s a match in the skill sets [and] the needs of the post. Then, of course, we provide an accommodation once the employee is assigned to a post. Thankfully, we usually have enough lead time, so that way, we can work with the employee to ensure that any accommodation that needs to be provided can be done by the time the employee gets to post,” Akbari said.

Schwartz said the settlement “totally recalibrates the way that candidates will be assessed.”

“They’ll be assessed based on their qualifications, but they’re not going to be weeded out based on their medical conditions as they have been for decades,” he said.

The Foreign Service making outreach to the disability community as part of a broader effort to recruit the next generation of diplomats.

The department last year held a recruiting event for deaf individuals and conducted one panel discussion held entirely in American Sign Language.

“It was a first for the department and I would posit it may have been the first for the federal government,” Akbari said.

The department, as part of the Labor Department’s Workforce Recruitment Program, also recruits about 15 interns with disabilities each year.

To ensure that the Foreign Service can accommodate new diplomats with disabilities, Rubin urged the department to prioritize making its international portfolio of housing and office space more accessible.

“A lot of our embassies and consulates are in very old buildings. Some of them are historic palaces, and it’s hard to retrofit them. But they have to spend money on this, they have to make it a priority,” Rubin said.

Akbari said that, as of January 2023, 72% of Foreign Service facilities are “substantially” or fully accessible to individuals with disabilities.

“They may lack one or two features that would make it accessible, but otherwise, they’re fully accessible,” she said.

About 56% of Foreign Service office buildings, she added, are substantially or fully accessible.

“You have to think about some of the places where our Foreign Service employees may be stationed — majestic buildings in Europe or Africa that have been around for a long time and grandfathered in,” Akbari said.  So we need to then use creative thinking — whether it’s with our Office of Accessibility and  Accommodations or Overseas Building Operations — to ensure that we can do what we can, so that people can serve where we need them.”

Akbari said facilities undergoing a substantial renovation are fully assessed for accessibility needs.

“When there’s a renovation, even overseas, then accessibility is absolutely part of that renovation,” she said.

Schwartz, however, said the recent settlement also protects the rights of individuals with mental health conditions to join the Foreign Service — who may need little-to-no accommodation from the department.

“If they need anything, the only kind of accommodation they would need is the ability to Zoom or go on Google Meet or whatever [and] meet with a therapist every so often. It’s really no accommodation at all,” he said.

Schwartz said the Foreign Service’s earlier medical clearance policy also discriminated against applicants with mental health conditions who may need access to prescription medication or may need a routine annual checkup with a doctor to remain on that medication.

“All these people have been weeded out in the past, and now will be able to enter the Foreign Service,” Schwartz said.