The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehab Act)

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehab Act)

Last Edited May 2, 2018 by Garenne Bigby in Accessibility Testing

The Rehabilitation Act was put into place in 1973. It was one of the first major advancements regarding individuals with disabilities. Before 1973, there was definitely not an equal playing field for these individuals. They were often overshadowed because they were considered inferior to those without disabilities. Individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities were finally able to have a wide range of services at their disposal. Having a disability can interfere with employment, independent living, self-determination, and even inclusion in the American society. Something needed to be changed, and the Rehabilitation Act helped bring a little hope to other members of our society.

The act prohibited discrimination against anyone with a disability by an activity or program that receives federal funding. The act is not perfect, as it was amended several times, but it is evolving as our society changes. Having an act in place that ensures the security of our disabled community is a very important aspect of our great society.

How Does the Rehabilitation Act Define Disability?

Disability seems to be a universal word. There are numerous conditions or impairments that can be considered a disability. It gets confusing when you are trying to determine where to draw the line in considering someone disabled. There are many people who might have a slight developmental or physical issue, but does this mean that they are disabled? If you have something wrong with you, but you can still continue your daily life tasks should you be considered a disabled individual? The Rehabilitation Act refers to a disabled individual as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that greatly hinders one or more of their daily life activities.

It is important to note that the Rehabilitation Act does not want to discriminate against individuals who may have different disorders, so instead of naming each disability that falls under the act, they have left it open to any. There are some disabilities that may cause issues, but you can’t see them or even know they are there. Take mental illness for example, we know this is a debilitating issue, but many people have learned to fake it and seem perfectly normal. Mental illness can have extraordinary effects on an individual’s daily life, so it is considered a disability. It is very likely that someone with a mental illness struggles to complete one or more of their daily activities.

Other disabilities that the Rehabilitation Act covers include those that are neurological, psychological, and physiological. As a result of the act not specifically naming disabilities, an individual is able to be identified by a variety of documents including medical records for confirmation. In most cases, the disability will hinder walking, talking, working, speaking, eating, learning, or breathing.

How Does the Rehabilitation Act Compare to Other Disability Acts?

The main difference with the Rehabilitation Act is that it covers instances where federal money is involved. So, it, unfortunately, does have its limits. If federal money is involved, it does not matter whether or not the place is operated by private or public institutions. The ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) is one of the most familiar and beneficial acts for those with individuals. It covers private and public entities regardless of whether or not they receive federal funding.

So, the ADA has far fewer restrictions than the Rehabilitation Act. This was a major groundbreaking act for disabled individuals. Both of these acts define a disabled individual in the same way. So, if some individual falls under the criteria for one act, they will fall under the criteria for the other as well. This means that any individual with a physical or mental impairment that interferes with their daily life in at least one way, will be covered by the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.

How Has the Rehabilitation Act Changed?

Like most things, as the years pass new changes need to be implemented. The Rehabilitation Act was great when it was first implemented, but there were changes that needed to be made to improve it and take it a step further. When the act was implemented most individuals were satisfied, but even just one year after it was introduced amendments were already needing to be made. In 1974 significant amendments were made to improve the strength of the Rehabilitation Act. The most important amendment is where the act expanded the definition of what actually was a disabled person. Initially, many individuals did not fall into the original definition; thus they were left out.

As we know now, the act covers any individual with an impairment that interferes with one or more of their daily activities. Before this, it only covered individuals who had a mental or physical disability which results in handicap to employment. This change made it much more attainable for all individuals to have an equal opportunity to become employed. It lessened the number of individuals who were left out, and this was a major win for the disabled community. They were given the opportunity to work alongside individuals who were not disabled, which also helped them feel included in the American society. It was not right for disabled individuals to basically become exiled from those with no disabilities.

Section 501

No Discrimination

Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act ensures that there will be no discrimination against disabled individuals in federal employment and application for employment. It also requires federal agencies to make reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals or those with a disability. Affirmative action is a major factor within this section of the rehabilitation act. These do not apply to private businesses, only the federal government. Stronger regulations were put into place to help enhance employment and retention rates of disabled individuals. There is a difference between the average disabled individual and one with a more serious impairment such as a missing limb, paralysis, or blindness, to name a few.

These disabilities are considered “targeted disabilities”. Section 501 ensures that 12 percent of a workplace must be composed of individuals with a disability. 2 percent of the workplace must be comprised of individuals with “targeted disabilities”. You may think that these numbers seem low, but they are actually impeccable. This section of the Rehabilitation Act served as a major advancement for the disabled community. These percentages are implemented in both low and high salary positions. It is reassuring to know that at all times at least 12 percent of a federal workplace is giving life-changing opportunities to disabled individuals.

An employer is allowed to hire someone specifically because they have a disability, this is not illegal. Someone who is rejected employment is also not permitted to sue that workplace for not hiring them with a disability. This section protects both the workplace and the disabled individual. There is always going to be a job out there for someone to do even if they suffer from an impairment.

Section 503

Taking the Prevention of Discrimination, A Step Further

As you read above, section 501 was in place to help lower the discrimination levels of individuals with disabilities. While this is a very beneficial part of the Rehabilitation Act, it still left a rather large loophole for the workplace to manage. Section 503 was implemented into the Rehabilitation Act to take the prevention of discrimination just one step further. This section prohibited federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating employment against those individuals who were known to have a disability.

Section 501 only covers federal agencies, so by covering contractors and subcontractors, disabled persons were extended more opportunity and coverage. These employers are now required to take affirmative action in all aspects of the workplace from recruiting, the hiring process, and even possible promotions. A disabled individual must be given the same attention and opportunity as a non-disabled individual. A level playing field was the goal, and this section helped make that a little more possible. A contractor must possess a 7 percent utilization rate of those individuals with disabilities. This is applied to each specific job group, or to the workforce as a whole if a contractor has less than 100 employees.

Annual data collection is also required for individuals to note how many disabled individuals applied for a job, and how many they hired. This data ensures that an individual is actively recruiting and hiring disabled individuals. By putting these numbers up front and under the eyes of different individuals each year, the hiring manager will be more likely to seek out disabled individuals to meet their quota. It is a great way to make sure that enough people are having the opportunity to be hired for a position, and some are even actually being hired for the position. Individuals are given the opportunity to self-identify as disabled, but they are not required to.

Section 504

Advancement in Civil Rights

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that no qualified individuals who have a disability within the United States should be excluded from participating in, be denied any benefits of, or be discriminated by any program or activity that receives federal financial assistance simply because they have any type of impairment or disability. This basically means that a civil rights law was put in place to avoid discrimination of all disabled individuals. This was the first law put in place to ensure that discrimination would not occur against individuals based on disabilities. This law offered much-needed protection to a large part of our society that had been left feeling vulnerable and more like a burden.

It is a shame that just because an individual may have an impairment, they were immediately dismissed as less than. Even the most brilliant of minds can have a physical disability, take Stephen Hawking for example. Section 504 ensured that programs receiving federal funds could not discriminate based on disability. The most important institutions that fall under this category include K-12 schools, federally funded projects, colleges, universities, and vocational schools. Schools were required to accept disabled children and provide them with the necessary accommodations. The needs of a disabled student were to be met as adequately as any needs of a student without a disability. This meant that special education classes were implemented or even special study areas.

Section 505

Remedies and Attorney Fees

All of the procedures and rights that are in Section 717 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must be available to any disabled individual. Keeping in mind any complaint that falls under section 501 and section 504, to any employee or applicant that were seeking employment and deferred by a specific complaint, or by not taking any action regarding the complaint. A court must take into account the cost that will arise by using affirmative action to ensure that any necessary accommodations are being made for the disabled individual, and they are not in charge of the expense. If specific accommodations can’t be made, then it is important that alternative methods are sought after to help assist the disabled individual.

If someone does not comply with the information provided within this section than they can put into jeopardy many aspects of their agency. All persons should have the remedies, procedures, and rights set forth in title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 available at their dispense. In order to make these accommodations the United States can charge the government an attorney’s fee, but no the individual directly. The individual is not at fault for the accommodations that need to be in place for their disability. Section 505 is an extension of provisions that govern the remedies and attorney fees found under section 501.

Section 508

Ease of Access

Those will disabilities are probably going to have some aspects of their job that may be more challenging for them than their non-disabled counterparts. Section 508 is in place to help make electronic and information technology more easily accessible to a person with a disability. This helps ensure that the workplace remains accessible for disabled individuals, and does not serve as another barrier to prevent them from being actively involved in the workforce. When this section is correctly implemented, even a blind individual will be able to successfully access government information and services just as easily as an individual with perfect eyesight. This may seem like a more challenging aspect, but it is very integral for the disabled community to be successfully integrated into any working environment.

Those who are blind must be able to accurately use a kiosk or parts of the web to locate, identify, and operate any federal information technology that is used to provide government information. Blindness is just one example, but there are numerous other aspects that have been integrated with disabilities of all kinds to help take down the barriers that can separate those with disabilities from those without them. Section 508 is solely designed to make specific things accessible to disabled individuals. If something is not going to be accessible, it is required that an alternative method is designed to make it just as easy for a disabled individual.

It is also important that online files and electronic files are also easily accessed by persons with a disability. It is important that agencies consider the accessibility of EIT (electronic and information technology) for disabled individuals when they are designing or maintaining it. All measures must be taken and always considered. It is important that the disabled community is not dismissed during any aspect regarding electronic and information technology.

Final Words

The Rehabilitation Act has evolved over the years and received numerous amendments. All of these changes and advancements have only helped strengthen the benefits for the disabled community in our country. It is very important that these individuals feel as if they are not excluded, but exceedingly included. By setting specific requirements and making necessary accommodations, the workplace and schools have become more inviting. A disability already brings about its own set of limitations and difficulties.

The disabled community should not have had other battles to face when trying to get an equal playing field in the workplace. It is great that federal agencies and contractors are required to maintain a certain percentage of disabled employees. Equal opportunities are just one major benefit that makes our country great. Without the Rehabilitation Act, it is likely that our disabled community would be completely dismissed. They might not be able to complete all of the tasks as quickly or efficiently as non-disabled people, but the important part is that they can get something done. They were so quickly dismissed just because they were impaired, even though they were capable.

Disabled individuals probably have a higher motivation to strive and persevere than that of someone without a disability. It takes a lot of motivation to push through their everyday limitations and knowing that they willingly want to join the workforce should be a testament to their motivation. The Rehabilitation Act helped sculpt a better society and make a place for individuals who otherwise would have been left behind and forgotten.

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite:
Founder of DYNO Mapper and Advisory Committee Representative at the W3C.


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