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The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is the foundation of all the later disability-related legislation and was a milestone for individuals with disabilities across the nation. Sometimes it is called “The Rehab Act.” This federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in federally funded programs and authorizes state vocational rehabilitation (VR) programs, client assistance programs, and independent living centers. Sections of this law are often referred to by their Title or Section number, e.g., Section 504 or Title I.

Definition of disability

Under the Rehabilitation Act, an individual with a disability is defined as a person who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.

Major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks. The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 clarified that the definition of disability was meant to be interpreted broadly and expanded the list of life activities to include reading, concentrating, standing, lifting, bending and others.

Title I: State Vocational Rehabilitation Programs

State Vocational Rehabilitation programs

State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) programs provide services that enable individuals with disabilities to pursue meaningful employment that corresponds with an individual’s abilities and interests. Some states have separate vocational rehabilitation programs for individuals who are blind or visually impaired, and a few states have separate programs for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. VR services are provided to eligible individuals with disabilities through the local offices of state VR agencies and through community-based organizations under contract to state agencies. There is no age requirement under the vocational rehabilitation program, though normally youth need to be ready to prepare for employment.

The Rehab Act also funds Vocational Rehabilitation Services Projects for American Indians with Disabilities , known as "121 Projects" (named for the Section of the law where the program is listed).

Eligibility for state vocational rehabilitation programs

To be eligible for VR services, an individual must:

  • have a physical or mental impairment that results in a substantial impediment to employment
  • be able to benefit from receiving VR services
  • require VR services to prepare for, secure, retain or regain employment.

Services available through VR programs vary depending upon the state. Services must be related to the employment goal and can include:

  • vocational evaluation
  • counseling and guidance
  • job search and placement

Individual Plan for Employment (IPE)

VR counselors first assess an individual's eligibility for VR services. When a young person is eligible to receive VR services, a counselor is assigned to work with him or her. Together, the young adult and his or her counselor will develop an Individual Plan for Employment (IPE) that identifies needed VR services. Family members and advocates can participate in this process, although youth who have reached their state's legal age of adulthood must give their written permission for others to be involved.

Similar to an Individualized Education Program (IEP), the IPE will have a description of an employment goal, a timeline to achieve the goal, and a description of the services and service providers needed. One of the main differences in the IPE from the IEP is that IPE focuses on employment goals. It is not a continuation of special education services as defined under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act

Requires nondiscrimination and affirmative action in employment by Federal agencies

Section 501 prohibits federal employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities and requires affirmative action steps be taken to employ and advance these employees.

Complaints are filed with the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office .

Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act

Prohibits employment discrimination by programs receiving federal funds

Section 503 prohibits employment discrimination based on disability by federal contractors and subcontractors. It also requires affirmative action in the employment of individuals with disabilities.

Complaints are filed with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Prohibits discrimination based on disability and guarantees “equal access” to federally funded programs and activities

Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in any program or activity that receives financial assistance from any federal agency:

“… no otherwise qualified individual with a disability… shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”

Often referred to as “504,” this important section guarantees that individuals with disabilities have the right of equal access to federally funded schools, institutions, programs, and activities.

For example, some youth with disabilities have "504 plans" in high school that document accommodations and services provided to ensure equal access to education.

All federal agencies (Housing, Education, Health & Human Service, etc.) have their own Section 504 regulations based on how the law applies to their programs. Each agency also manages its own complaint process, but general information is available from the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice .

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

Requires electronic and information technology to be accessible to those with disabilities

Section 508 requires federal electronic and information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities. This means federally funded websites, information kiosks, telephone systems, and other forms of information technology must be able to be used by people with disabilities, including those with vision and hearing impairments.

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