November 2, 2012

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT has long given people with severe disabilities a helping hand in employment by allowing managers to streamline hiring procedures for disabled applicants who qualify for an open job. Now Montgomery County is asking voters to revise the county charter to follow the federal model. It’s a sensible move to help a group that includes wounded veterans and whose unemployment rate is higher than the national average. County voters should vote for Question A on Tuesday’s ballot.

In general, state and local governments have spotty records when it comes to hiring people who are disabled, even those who meet the basic qualifications for jobs. That’s a shame, and it reflects antiquated attitudes.

Plenty of public-sector (and private-sector) jobs can be done by people who are blind, deaf or paraplegic or have autism or Asperger syndrome. Likewise, many people with psychiatric disabilities can perform well in the workplace.

Opponents, including some conservatives, regard hiring preferences for disabled people as akin to race-based affirmative action; in both cases, the result may be that a more qualified applicant is denied employment. But there is a broad and compelling societal interest in helping disadvantaged groups that suffer from prejudice based on ignorance and misperceptions. All the more so in the case of veterans, including those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, who return home with severe combat-related disabilities, be they physical or mental.

Last year, the unemployment rate for those with disabilities was 15 percent, nearly twice the national average. Even as unemployment eased for people without a disability from 2010 to 2011, it remained stuck for disabled people. Similarly, underemployment is a more severe problem for disabled people, a third of whom work part time, compared with 20 percent of those who are not disabled.

Montgomery County’s interest in hiring disabled workers is especially strong given that the gateway for so many injured veterans returning to the United States from foreign wars is Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. Those veterans, and others with serious disabilities, deserve a fair shot at local employment if they seek it. The county’s charter amendment would help.