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Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehab Act)

Review the basics of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as Amended (Rehab Act) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment and in the employment practices of federal contractors.

The standards for determining employment discrimination under the Rehab Act are the same as those used in Title I of the ADA; both protect “qualified individuals with disabilities.” An “individual with a disability” is a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such impairment or is regarded as having such an impairment.  “Qualified” means the person satisfies the job-related requirements of the position he or she holds (or is applying for) and can perform its essential functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation.

The Rehab Act has several sections, including:

Section 501

Section 501 of the Rehab Act prohibits employment discrimination against people with disabilities in the federal sector, including the U.S. Postal Service, the Postal Regulatory Commission and the Smithsonian Institution. It does not require these entities to have a minimum number of employees at the worksite to be covered. Section 501 is administered by individual agencies’ Equal Employment Opportunity office. In February 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (PDF) on Section 501. The rule consolidates existing requirements from a variety of sources and sets goals for federal agency workforces of 12% representation for people with disabilities and 2% for people with “targeted” disabilities, measures facilitated by inviting applicants and employees to voluntarily self-identify. To learn more about the new rule, read EARN’s Section 501 policy brief or visit the EARN 501 Info Center.

Section 503

Section 503 of the Rehab Act prohibits employers with federal contracts (or subcontracts) from discriminating against applicants and employees with disabilities and requires affirmative steps to hire, retain and promote people with disabilities. The non-discrimination provisions apply to all companies with contracts in excess of $10,000, while the affirmative action provisions apply to companies with 50 or more employees and contracts of $50,000 or more. In 2014, updates to Section 503 strengthened its affirmative action requirements, creating, for the first time ever, a 7% representation goal. They also set a requirement that employers must invite applicants and employees to self-identify as people with disabilities (applicants at both the pre- and post-offer stage and employees every five years). Section 503 is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP). OFCCP offers extensive information about its requirements on its Section 503 webpage

Learn about strategies to help federal contractors meet their obligations under Section 503 and recruit, hire, advance and retain workers with disabilities.

Section 504

Section 504 of the Rehab Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance or by any program or activity conducted by a federal executive agency or the U.S. Postal Service. For programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance, there is no minimum threshold for coverage. Furthermore, there is no requirement that recipients or executive agencies have a certain number of employees. Section 504 protects not only people with disabilities who apply to and participate in such programs, but also job applicants and employees of the organizations that provide them. Each federal agency issues, administers and enforces its own set of Section 504 regulations tailored to its programs, although all such regulations share common requirements.

Section 508

Section 508 of the Rehab Act addresses information technology. Specifically, it requires federal agencies’ information and communications technology to be accessible to people with disabilities—including not only members of the public but also employees. While Section 508 only applies to federal agencies, many private employers have adapted its standards as a way to ensure their technology infrastructure is accessible. The Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy, provides a wealth of guidance for employers on how to “think accessible” when it comes to technology, including a guide for employers and TalentWorks, an online tool that can help employers and human resources professionals ensure their online job applications and other eRecruiting technologies are accessible to job seekers with disabilities.