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Reinvigorating Implementation and Enforcement of the Rehab Act

September 26, 2023
Alison Barkoff

Performing the duties of ACL Administrator and Assistant Secretary for Aging 

When most people think about disability rights, the law that probably comes to mind is the Americans with Disabilities Act. And with good reason — the passage of the ADA was an important milestone in our nation’s civil rights history, and it opened many doors for people with disabilities.

But many of the anti-discrimination protections for disabled people actually come from a different law — the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Signed into law 50 years ago today, the Rehab Act was the first federal law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Specifically, Section 504 of the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies and in “any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Section 504 established for people with disabilities the right to equal access to public education, transportation, health care, and more.

The Rehab Act and the ADA work together to provide a comprehensive set of civil rights protections for disabled people. Their reach is complementary — by design. The Rehab Act served as a model for the ADA, and the ADA is often described as “picking up where the Rehab Act left off.”

The civil rights protections in Section 504 of the Rehab Act were groundbreaking and remain critically important today. But they are only one part of what has made the Rehab Act such a powerful and impactful law. The Rehab Act also created programs that provide the key services and supports many people with disabilities need to exercise those civil rights. It expanded employment opportunities. And fighting for the Rehab Act (and the regulations to implement it) united disability advocates across the country in a common cause. What started as a grassroots campaign grew into the disability rights movement, which has changed our country in fundamental ways.

The Rehab Act set expectations for equal access and opportunity for disabled people, but as a nation, we have not yet fully lived up to them. We have come a long way in the 50 years since the Rehab Act became law. At the same time, people with disabilities continue to face discrimination and far too many barriers to exercising their basic civil rights and participating in all aspects of community life. Virtually every disabled person can tell a story of discrimination or barriers they have experienced — being unable to get the reasonable accommodations they need in the classroom or at work, discrimination in seeking housing (from the application process to securing accessible units), or being denied life-saving treatment because of a disability.

It is time to harness the broad reach and powerful provisions of the Rehab Act to deliver on its promises. And today, we stand on the edge of an unprecedented opportunity to do that. COVID-19 brought the discrimination and barriers that people with disabilities have been fighting in the shadows to the forefront of national view and created momentum for change. That’s why disabled people were explicitly recognized in President Biden’s executive order on advancing equity and agencies across the federal government are taking action to strengthen protections against disability discrimination and to make equal access and true inclusion a reality for disabled people.

At ACL, we are seizing that opportunity. We are working with disability advocates, our grantees and partners in the disability networks, and colleagues across federal agencies — as well as within our own programs — to reinvigorate the implementation and enforcement of the Rehab Act. As we commemorate the law’s 50th anniversary, I want to share some highlights of that work.

Continuing the fight: Reinvigorating Section 504 of the Rehab Act

The Rehab Act became law because the disability community came together to advocate for it — and implementation of the law began for the same reason. Although the Rehab Act was signed in 1973, enforcement of the critical civil rights provisions found in Section 504 stalled awaiting the regulations needed to implement them. It took nearly four years of relentless advocacy — culminating in the now-iconic 26-day peaceful occupation of a federal building in San Francisco — before the initial 504 regulations were signed in April of 1977.

The disability rights movement coalesced during the fight for the 504 regulations, and its now-iconic leaders were forged. People like the late Ed Roberts, who is considered the founder of the independent living moment, and Judy Heumann, the “mother of the disability rights movement” who died earlier this year, led a grassroots coalition of people with disabilities, their families and other advocates to begin to change the face of this country.

Their early victories became the stepping stones to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which extended the Rehab Act’s non-discrimination protections to public and private workplaces, all activities of state and local government (regardless of federal funding), and “places of public accommodation” (meaning businesses open to the public like restaurants, movie theaters, and doctor’s offices).

The Rehab Act shepherded in a new era in disability rights, and it serves as a cornerstone in a foundation we continue to build upon today. It provides protections in situations and settings not covered by the ADA; the impact of the two laws together is greater than the sum of its parts, but each law is critical in its own right, as well. Today, fifty years after the signing of the Rehab Act, its protections are more important than ever.

That’s why earlier this month the HHS Office for Civil Rights issued a proposed rule a rule that would comprehensively update regulations implementing Section 504 for the first time since 1977. The proposed update clarifies obligations in several crucial areas that are not explicitly addressed in the current rule and improves consistency with legislative developments since the current regulations were issued. When finalized, the rule will help disabled people have equal access to health care and human services by preventing discrimination in medical treatment, requiring that medical equipment and websites be accessible, and ensuring people are able to receive services in the community instead of in institutional settings, among other requirements. ACL collaborated with the Office for Civil Rights to make sure the rule addresses the most pressing issues and priorities of the disability community. (And the community can continue to shape the proposed rule, as it is currently open for public comment.)

The proposed HHS 504 rule complements the disability provisions in the proposed HHS rule implementing Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act published earlier this year, as well as a rule on web accessibility for public entities under the ADA proposed by the Department of Justice (also currently open for public comment). It will be joined soon by proposed updates to the regulations implementing Section 504 within the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development.

Similarly, HHS and DOJ are both working to make medical diagnostic equipment more accessible — and both are building on the standards developed by the U.S. Access Board. These regulatory advances complement and build on one another.

Several of these rules are currently open for public comment, and others will be open for comment soon. Input from people with disabilities and their families, and from the disability and aging networks is absolutely critical to ensure that the final regulations reflect, and respond to, the experiences of people with disabilities. We’ve pulled them together on to make it easier for stakeholders to keep track of their status — and upcoming deadlines.

This is a critical time for disability anti-discrimination policy, and we must build on the momentum that this work has ignited. These updated regulations, once finalized, will be critical tools in fighting disability discrimination, and ACL is proud to stand with our federal partners — and the disability community — in supporting their enforcement.

Reinvigorating the Rehab Act’s Programs

We also are reinvigorating the spirit of the Rehab Act through our work within its programs.

When it was signed in 1973, the Rehab Act authorized programs that support people with disabilities in living the lives they want to lead, fully included in their communities. These include vocational rehabilitation services, which support disabled people in pursuing post-secondary education and careers. It also expanded employment opportunities, prohibiting disability discrimination and requiring federal agencies and most federal contractors to take proactive steps to recruit and advance people with disabilities. Amendments to the Rehab Act in later years established accessibility requirements for federally funded websites and information technology, ensuring equal access to these resources and tools for people with disabilities. Updates to the Rehab Act also created ACL’s independent living programs, which support community living and self-determination for people with all types of disabilities, and ACL's National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), whose mission is to generate new knowledge — and to promote its effective use — to improve opportunities for people with disabilities.

The programs created and funded by the Rehab Act have each played an important role in the progress we have made so far, and each has an important role to play as we work to create a world in which people of all ages, with and without disabilities, live, learn, work, and contribute side by side. Increasingly, these programs are working together, leveraging the strengths and resources of each to achieve our shared goals.

I’ve asked Jill Jacobs, Commissioner of ACL’s Administration on Disabilities, and Dr. Anjali J. Forber-Pratt, Director of NIDILRR, to share some of the highlights of that work:

Learn more at

Last modified on 05/01/2024

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