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Montgomery County to favor disabled job seekers

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

After decades of effort, advocates for the disabled in Montgomery scored a major victory Tuesday when the County Council unanimously voted to create a local-government hiring preference for people with developmental, psychiatric or severe physical disabilities.

The final push for the law brought out residents who have been appealing for such a move since the 1980s. Some said they had given up, and others warned that the nation's steep recession has darkened an already a grim employment picture for many people with disabilities.

"I said, 'I'm 97 years old. I hope it passes before I run out of time,' " said Kermit Mohn, former chairman of the Montgomery County Commission on People with Disabilities.

The new law also alters an existing hiring preference for veterans, giving the same advantage to people with disabilities. It also creates a new classification that outranks them both: veterans with disabilities.

The county's tough fiscal straits could dampen the law's immediate impact. Montgomery has a long-standing hiring preference for its own laid-off workers, who have a higher preference than any of those three groups. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has proposed a midyear cost-trimming plan that would cut 44 jobs, mostly transit workers. Officials said other layoffs could follow as the county works to close a budget shortfall that could top $600 million.

Backers said they are thrilled anyway.

"I don't think anything is necessarily going to happen overnight," said Mark Maxin, chairman of the disabilities commission. But as time passes and the economy grows, the law will undermine prejudices by channeling qualified workers into jobs that need doing, he said.

"People with disabilities are often judged by their mental or physical weaknesses, as opposed to their talents," Maxin said. "We have to stop judging people based on how they appear and start judging them on what they can accomplish. This bill reaches for that lofty goal."

The law creates a preference for disabled job seekers who are deemed well qualified in the application process. It wouldn't apply to those characterized as simply qualified. The law relies on a definition of disabled used in a federal hiring program, not the broader definition used to prevent discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Officials said that means that while someone with diabetes, for example, would be disabled under the anti-discrimination law, they would not fall under Montgomery's hiring law. Regulations will be drawn up in the coming months.

"The recession will have some impact on the progress we can make, but it will end, and the legislation will be there," said council member Phil Andrews (D), the measure's chief sponsor. Soaring unemployment rates for people with disabilities in Montgomery and beyond amount "to a staggering underuse of talent," Andrews said. "If you can do the job, we want to hire you."

Andrews also is pushing for a change to Montgomery's charter -- essentially its constitution -- that would allow the county to hire people with disabilities directly into certain jobs, rather than giving them a preference in a job competition, as Tuesday's vote does.

For people such as Cindy Buddington, the move sent an important signal. She is retired from bookkeeping at a disability nonprofit group, but ran into some trouble convincing some other employers when she was first looking for work.

"I'm in a wheelchair," she said. "I was told, 'We have steps.' "

Though many physical impediments have been lowered, softer barriers still exist, she said, especially when employers don't understand what it's like to work with someone who is deaf or has another disability.

"I think people get sort of nervous about that. Sometimes it's just easier to hire someone without a disability. But when a person with a disability is hired, non-disabled people just fall into treating them like they didn't have a disability," Buddington said. "For the county to do this, I think it's a great step, and not necessarily a bad place to be working."

Montgomery officials Tuesday also, as expected, passed a pair of other social initiatives. In a unanimous vote, the council passed a measure that requires certain contractors and subcontractors to provide domestic benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees if they provide them for married couples.

On a 7 to 2 vote, the council also required pregnancy counseling centers to post a disclaimer if they don't have medical professionals on staff. A notice would also encourage women to consult a licensed health-care provider. Proponents said the measure is meant to address misleading information from opponents of abortion rights. Some clinic operators, who often provide free clothes along with other services, said they plan to comply, although they said they are being targeted unfairly for political reasons.

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