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Rehabilitation Act (1973)


Introduction to the rehabilitation act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is considered the greatest achievement in the disability rights movement as it was the first civil rights law protecting people with disabilities from discrimination. This law and its amendments was the first major legislative effort to secure an equal playing field for individuals with disabilities, stating that qualified individuals with a disability cannot be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal funding. The Rehab Act covers federal government and federal contractors and subcontractors.


Definition of disability under the rehab act

The Rehabilitation Act defines a person with a disability as someone:

  1. With a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  2. Who is regarded as having such an impairment; or
  3. With a record of such an impairment.

Key sections of the rehab act

Section 501: Section 501 requires federal agencies 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 requires agencies make reasonable accommodations for qualified applicants and employees with disabilities.

Section 503: On March 24, 2014, new rules for Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act (RA) took effect, covering employers who are federal contractors or subcontractors. These new rules strengthen the enforcement of the ADA and put into place new employer requirements around recruiting, hiring and accommodating individuals with disabilities.

Enforced by the U.S. Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), Section 503 covers employers with U.S. federal government contracts or subcontracts of $10,000 or more and employers with at least 50 employees and a federal contract/subcontract of at least $50,000, stating they must have an affirmative action program for hiring individuals with disabilities.

The new rules require federal contractors and subcontractors to aspire to, and track progress toward, employing individuals with disabilities. Though RA Section 503 has been in effect since 1973, there has not been a specific benchmark defining what the percent of individuals with disabilities are to be in the workforce of covered employers. Section 503 new rules now provide this benchmark. Called an aspirational goal, covered employers must now attain, or show progress toward attaining, a workforce that consists of at least seven percent of people with disabilities.

Section 504: Section 504 of the Rehab Act was designed to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination based solely on their disability in services and programs that receive federal funds, such as government agencies, federally funded projects including public housing, K-12 schools, and postsecondary entities like state colleges, universities, and vocational training schools. Litigation that arose out of Section 504 generated central disability rights concepts like "reasonable modification," "reasonable accommodation," and "undue burden."

Section 505: Section 505 states in actions to enforce or charge a violation of the Rehab Act, courts may award a reasonable attorney╠ąs fee as part of the costs.

Section 508: In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act, including the addition of Section 508. This section prohibits the Federal government from procuring electronic and information technology goods and services, including web design, that are not fully accessible to those with disabilities.


U.S. General Services Administration (2016). Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act _ Employment of Individuals with Disabilities. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved from


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