The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first “ rights” legislation to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. However, this law applied to programs conducted by Federal agencies, those receiving federal funds, such as colleges participating in federal student loan programs, Federal employment, and employment practices of businesses with federal contracts. The standards for determining employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act are the same as those used in Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

There are several relevant sections of this act under Title V that require that reasonable accommodations be provided:

  • Section 501 – covering Federal government agencies of the Executive branch
  • Section 503 – covering Federal government contractors and subcontractors
  • Section 504 – covering any program or activity that either receives Federal financial assistance or is conducted by any Executive agency or the United States Postal Service.

Section 501

Section 501 requires affirmative action and prohibits discrimination in employment by Federal agencies of the Executive branch of government. To obtain more information or to file a complaint, applicants or employees should contact the specific agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office.

Section 503

Section 503 requires affirmative action and prohibits employment discrimination by Federal government contractors and subcontractors with contracts of more than $10,000. This section would include employers with such contracts such as colleges and universities, training programs, and private defense and research companies. For more information or to file a complaint, contact the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in the U.S. Department of Labor at (202) 219-9423 (voice/relay).

Section 504

Section 504 requires that qualified individuals with disabilities shall not be excluded from, denied access to or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity that either receives Federal financial assistance or is conducted by any Executive agency or the U.S. Postal Service.

Each Federal agency has its own sections of section 504 regulations that apply to its own programs, and agencies that provide financial assistance have regulations that cover entities receiving Federal aid. Reasonable accommodations for employees must be provided as well as access to participation in all programs, facilitated communication for people with hearing or vision disabilities, and accessible construction and alterations.

Section 504 has promoted the development of disability support services in colleges and universities. It has also spurred the federal government to write disability employment policies. The “Handbook of Reasonable Accommodations” prepared by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management was the first such attempt to define the types of reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, but focused primarily on modifications for people with physical or sensory disabilities.

Section 504 does not require special education programming to be developed for students with disabilities but does require an institution to be prepared to make appropriate academic adjustments and reasonable modifications to policies and practices to allow for full participation of students with disabilities. Persons diagnosed with a psychological or psychiatric disability are protected by Section 504 if their condition substantially limits a major life activity such as learning, working, speaking, writing, walking, seeing, and hearing.

Who is responsible for enforcement of Section 504?
Each agency is responsible for enforcing its own regulations, but Section 504 may also be enforced through private lawsuits without a requirement for a ‘right to sue’ letter. For information on filing complaints, contact the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division at (800) 514-0301 (voice) or (800) 514-0383 (TDD).


Note: The information contained in these pages is for educational purposes only, and is not legal advice. Individuals should contact the appropriate legal resources for specific legal advice regarding their particular situations.