Signed by: President Richard Nixon
Signed on: September 26, 1973
Significance: The Rehabilitation Act was one of the first civil rights laws in the United States to protect people with disabilities from discrimination. It prohibits any program or activity receiving federal funding from discriminating against people with disabilities.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 has been amended several times to change its goals, all with the aim of reducing discrimination against people with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act applies to organizations and employers that are part of—or funded by—the federal government. (There are rules about whether the Rehab Act applies to a federal contractor, too.) This is in contrast to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which covers state and local governments in Title II, but has little to say about the federal government.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 has several sections that mandate civil rights for people with disabilities. It covers the federal government and federal contractors and subcontractors. It is also commonly called the Rehab Act.
Definition of Disability
The 1973 version of the Rehabilitation Act had a different definition of disability from the current definition under the Rehab Act. The definition that we use now is based on the 1974 version of the Rehab Act. The 1974 version has the same definition of disability as the one in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A person with a disability is someone:
- With a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
- Who is regarded as having such an impairment; or
- With a record of such an impairment.
(See also What Is the Americans with Disabilities Act?, which includes an explanation of this definition of disability.)
Key Sections of the Rehab Act
Here’s a look at several sections of the Rehab Act.
Section 501 is about employment in federal agencies. It requires federal agencies to create affirmative action plans for recruiting, hiring, placing, and advancing people with disabilities in federal employment. It also prohibits federal agencies from discriminating based on disability, and it requires that agencies make reasonable accommodations for qualified applicants and for employees with disabilities.
This section established the US Access Board. Duties of the Access Board, as described in Section 502, are to ensure compliance with the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) and to provide technical assistance relating to Title II and Title III of the ADA, with regard to architectural, transportation, and communications barriers. Many other duties are listed, and the Access Board has posted the text of Section 502 on its website, where you can read it in full.
In 2014, new rules for Section 503 took effect, covering employers who are federal contractors or subcontractors. These new rules strengthen the enforcement of the ADA and create new employer requirements around recruiting, hiring, and accommodating individuals with disabilities.
Section 503 covers employers with US federal government contracts or subcontracts of $10,000 or more, as well as employers with at least 50 employees and a federal contract/subcontract of at least $50,000. Under Section 503, these employers must have an affirmative action program for hiring individuals with disabilities.
Previously, there was no benchmark for a desired percentage of individuals with disabilities in the workforce of covered employers. However, the 2014 version of Section 503 calls for employers to set an “aspirational goal.” The goal is for these employers to have—or show progress toward having—a workforce that consists of at least 7% percent people with disabilities.
Section 503 is enforced by the US Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP).
Section 504 was designed to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination based solely on their disability in services and programs that receive federal funds.
These services and programs include government agencies. They also include projects receiving federal financial assistance like Section 8 public housing, K-12 schools, almost all colleges and universities, and vocational training schools. Litigation that arose out of Section 504 generated key disability rights concepts, including reasonable modification, reasonable accommodation, and undue burden.
Section 505 states that in actions to enforce or charge a violation of the Rehab Act, courts may award a reasonable attorney’s fee as part of the costs.
In its 1998 amendment to the Rehab Act, Congress added Section 508. This section prohibits the federal government from procuring electronic and information technology goods and services—including websites—that are not fully accessible to those with disabilities.
Prohibiting Discrimination in a Federal Context
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, with its various amendments, mandates many ways that those organizations that are funded by the federal government must create a built environment and a social environment that does not discriminate against people with disabilities.