The Blind Achieving Success In The Work Place

by Rami Rabby

Copyright © 1995, 2010
National Federation of the Blind

          From the Associate Editor: For several years readers of the Braille Monitor have followed with interest the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind to assist Rami Rabby to batter down the resistance of the Department of State, which stedfastly maintained that blind people could not be fit representatives of the United States Foreign Service. Congressman Gerry Sikorski took up the cudgels two years ago, and eventually the State Department reversed its discriminatory policy against the blind.

          On Friday afternoon, July 5, as part of the 1991 convention of the National Federation of the Blind, Rami Rabby participated in a panel of Federationists invited to describe their employment almost on the eve of his departure for London to assume responsibilities as a member of the U.S. Foreign Service, Mr. Rabby took the oppertunity to put our decades-long struggle with the Department of State into perspective. Here is the speech he delivered to the packed convention hall:

          Two years ago, at our 1989 convention in Denver, Colorado, I reported to you on my efforts to enter the diplomatic service of the United States: how I had passed the written examination for Foreign Service Officer candidates three times; how I had passed the oral assessment twice; how I was disqualified during the medical examination, solely on the basis of my blindness; and how eventually, when the Department of State realized that I was dead- serious about entering the Foreign Service, it decided to make it virtually impossible for blind candidates to take the entrance examinations in the first place.

          Much has happened to me, my career, and my life since that Denver convention, as has been reported along the way in various issues of the Braille Monitor. On October 12, 1989, the Department of State reversed completely its historic policy of excluding all blind and otherwise severely disabled candidates from employment in the diplomatic service; the next day the Department notified me of its intention to offer me its first appointment under its new policy; on November 30, 1990, I signed an out-of-court settlement with the State Department which stipulated the conditions upon which I would enter the Foreign Service; on January 7, 1991, along with some forty-five other successful candidates, I began a six- month training program for Foreign Service Officers at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia; and next Monday evening [July 8] I shall be flying from Dulles Airport to the United Kingdom to embark on my first two-year assignment in the American Embassy in London.

          Of all the changes I have made during my life, this one is by far the most radical and, in some ways, the most traumatic. It is obviously the most exciting, too. I have changed jobs before; I have changed careers before; I have changed countries before; but never before have I attempted to do all three at the same time. I hope it will work.

          What has happened to me personally, however, is nothing like as important or as instructive as the process by which all of us, the National Federation of the Blind, have gone about engineering a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turnaround in the employment policy of one of the most visible and prestigious agencies of the federal government.

          In many ways our struggle and victory vis-a-vis the State Department are a classic example of the operating philosophy and strategy which the National Federation of the Blind typically follows in bringing about attitudinal changes in society and social betterment for the blind. Dr. Jernigan always reminds us (as he has done again this week) that our campaigns for greater opportunity and equal treatment are necessarily long, and that we tend to make our progress toward victory in fits and starts, placing our emphasis first on one issue, then on another, as the needs of the moment demand. We may lose some skirmishes along the way; occasionally we may lose a battle; but we always win the war, because the war is never over until we have won it. Now I am not sure yet whether we have won the war with the State Department (more on that later). But this year we have certainly won a battle of major proportions in that war.

          That war originally got underway in the 1960s when a number of blind people, some of whom are at this convention, such as Ramona Walhof, Harold Snider, Allan and Billie Ruth Schlank, among others, enrolled in the Foreign Language and International Relations Program of Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. Theoretically at least one of their options was subsequently to enter the Foreign Service of the Department of State. But those were the days before there were any statutes on the books prohibiting discrimination in employment on grounds of blindness, and, to be honest, we were not as powerful and influential as we are today. Jim Gashel was not yet our Director of Governmental Affairs, and Judy Sanders was not yet the District Director for Congressman Gerry Sikorski. So those early Georgetown University students did not enter the Foreign Service.

          The second wave of campaigning by the National Federation of the Blind against the Department of State took place in the mid- 1970s when Maryanne Masterson sought our assistance to help her enter the Department. Maryanne was then just graduating from college, and the State Department was not only adamantly opposed to blind people working for it in U.S. embassies and consulates; it was not particularly enthusiastic about having us work for it in Washington, DC, either.

          We responded to Maryanne: we wrote literally hundreds of letters to then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (as Braille Monitor issues of that period will attest), to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and to anyone else who might wish to join us in the assault. In my capacity the Chairman of the Cultural Exchange and International Program Committee at the time, I well remember accompanying Jim Gashel to at least one meeting at the State Department. Jim Gashel participated in many more negotiating sessions, and what I now know on reliable authority from inside sources is that, on at least one occasion, one member of the State Department's negotiating team deliberately tried to guide Jim into walls, desks, and filing cabinets in a shameful effort to demonstrate how a blind person could not maneuver effectively and with dignity in unfamiliar settings, which has always been one of the State Department's arguments in support of its exclusionary policy.

          Well, as you can imagine, Jim Gashel did not go where he did not want to go, and Maryanne Masterson did get into the State Department as a Civil Service employee in Washington, while the Department still held fast against blind appointments for the Foreign Service. That was a victory perhaps not in the mother of all battles, but it was a good victory, nevertheless.

          Then there was a lull in the skirmishing and the warring until the mid-1980s when, once again, the National Federation of the Blind went into action, this time in support of Don Galloway, who had served as a Peace Corps Country Director and who wanted to use that experience specifically in the Foreign Service. But although that effort ended in a significant financial settlement, it did not end in a Foreign Service appointment. The Department of State was still dead set against having blind people represent United States interests on the world scene.

          The right moment for our real victory in the Foreign Service campaign only came in the late 1980s. Historic events tend to happen when the right battlegrounds, the right armies, the right generals, and the right circumstances coincide and when one of the warring parties either misreads the intentions or underestimates the seriousness of the purpose of the other. Such a historic event was the Congressional briefing on the State Department's exclusion of the blind from the Foreign Service, which was held on Capital Hill during our annual Washington Seminar, on Wednesday, February 1, 1989, by Congressman Gerry Sikorski, with Judy Sanders at his side advising him and guiding him every step of the way.

          That Congressional briefing and the devastating testimony which we presented at it were reported verbatim in the pages of the Braille Monitor. However, what I now know from reliable sources inside the State Department is that the Department's senior officials simply did not believe that, when their spokesmen entered that hearing room, they would be confronted by two-hundred-fifty of us from forty-plus states of the Union. I am told that those who were dispatched by the State Department to present its case to Congressman Sikorski felt like cattle being led to the slaughterhouse and that day was for them the worst day of their professional careers.

          From that point forward, the only way out for the State Department was us. Not long after that briefing, a new Director- General of the Foreign Service was appointed: Edward Perkins, a black man who had just served as U.S. ambassador to South Africa and who clearly knew something about prejudice, discrimination, denial of opportunity, and unequal treatment. After reviewing the record of the Foreign Service with respect to employment of the blind, he issued a directive in which he stated that the Foreign Service of the United States must reflect a cross section of American society, that no group in America society should be categorically excluded from the diplomatic service unless there was some exceptionally good reason for it, and that he, for one, saw no good reason why the blind should be so excluded.

          For someone such as myself who has had a life-long interest in such subjects as international relations, foreign languages, geography, history, cross-cultural communication, and the like, the past six months which I have spent in training at the Foreign Service Institute have been extremely stimulating.

          First, there was a wide-ranging course orienting us to the overall nature and operation of the State Department and the Foreign Service. This was followed by an area studies course on Europe, since that is the region to which I have been posted. Then I took a course on what the State Department calls political tradecraft, in which we were instructed in the various functions of a political officer, such as reporting by cable on the political events and personalities of our host country; answering questions at press conferences by telling the truth or skirting and finessing it as the demands of the moment dictate; briefing Congressional delegations who visit our host country and want us to prepare them for their meetings with government officials; and carrying out demarches, which are face-to-face presentations intended to persuade government officials in the host country to cooperate with the U.S. government by doing something we want them to do or desisting from doing something we don't want them to do. Finally we all took the consular course--not one of my favorites--in which we endeavored to learn the intricacies of the statutory provisions and implementing regulations of the Emigration and Nationality Act; and you thought the Rehabilitation Act was bad!

          My two-year assignment at the American Embassy in London will be divided into two parts. I shall spend my first year in the consular section of the embassy: handling both emigrant and nonemigrant visas; dealing with passport and nationality problems; and assisting American citizens who, for one reason or another, have gotten into trouble, usually with the law, in the United Kingdom.

          My second year will be spent in the political section of the embassy, where I shall be in charge of what the Foreign Service calls a portfolio of subjects. I shall investigate, analyze, and report on developments in those subjects by meeting with my counterparts in the British government; reading material from a wide variety of sources; making contacts among opinion-makers and leaders in British society; and briefing my ambassador, visiting Congressmen and, of course, the U.S. country desk of the European Bureau of the State Department in Washington.

          Several weeks ago, I wrote obligatory letters of introduction to the American Ambassador in London, to the Consul-General, and to the Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the Embassy. The response I received from the Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs--that is the head of a political section in a major embassy such as London--is interesting. Some of it is ceremonial fluff, but much of it is not and, in its attitude and tone, is indicative of the vast distance we have travelled together over the last twenty- five years.

Embassy of the United States of America, London
June 6, 1991

Dear Rami:

          Thank you for your letter of May 30.

          Congratulations on your assignment to London. As I'm sure you know, this is a period of great political and economic change in Europe and in Britain. I am confident you will find that work here in the political section demanding, rewarding, and fun.

          Most officers in the section have responsibilities both on foreign policy issues and on domestic political developments. For example, the officer you will replace, David Wallace, has principal action on the UN (a lively account given UK membership on the UN Security Council); CSCE; narcotics; human rights and refugees issues; Latin America; and the Liberal Democrat Party. I would expect you to inherit most of these areas of responsibility, but few portfolios survive transitions intact, so we can look at specific duties farther down the road.

          As you can imagine, your assignment has occasioned great interest and I have taken the liberty of circulating your letter to others in the Section. It is Important, I think, for everyone to know your very impressive qualifications as well as your openness about your blindness.

          I look forward to meeting you this summer--and to having you come aboard the Political Section next year whenever we can wrench you from the clutches of the Consulate.

Bruce G. Burton
Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs

          I said earlier that I am not sure yet whether we have actually won the war with the State Department. I believe the war will finally be over not next Tuesday morning when I arrive at the American Embassy in London, but rather fifteen, twenty, or perhaps twenty-five years into the future when some blind Foreign Service Officer not only will have entered the Foreign Service, but will have risen up through its ranks and, at the pinnacle of his or her career, will be appointed United States Ambassador to some nation around the world, with the advice and consent of the Senate. Only then, when the State Department has enough confidence in the blind to entrust to a blind career diplomat the full spectrum of the United States's relationship with some other nation, will we know that we have won this particular war.

          That career diplomat will not be me, if only because entering the Foreign Service, as I do, in mid-career, I simply don't have the time left to do what it takes to build the necessary track record to become an ambassador. But it may be Cheryl Cameron, who was a scholarship winner two years ago, who is at this convention, who has been accepted by the Peace Corps, and who has just been assigned to the Dominican Republic. Or it may be Alex Barrasso, who is a scholarship winner this year and who, already at age eighteen, expresses a strong desire to enter the diplomatic service. If and when they are appointed ambassadors in the first or second decade of the 21st Century, let us hope that they and the Federation generation of those years will look back appreciatively at this Federation generation, the generation of the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s, and will acknowledge our role in first bringing down the exclusionary barriers of the Foreign Service and in recognizing (to paraphrase Jaques' words in Shakespeare's As You Like It) that all the world is, indeed, a stage, and all the men and women, blind as well as well as sighted, not only have the right but the ability to act on it. Thank you all for everything.

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