The Rehabilitation Act of 1973: 45 Years of Activism and Progress

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The year 2018 marks the 45th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the predecessor of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). While efforts to promote vocational rehabilitation services began in the early 20th century through the enactment of the Vocational Education Act of 1917 and the Soldier’s Rehabilitation Act of 1918, the Rehabilitation Act ushered in a new age of activism and accomplishment in the pursuit of rights for individuals with disabilities in higher education, government, and private industry.

After successive vetoes, President Richard M. Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act into law on September 26, 1973. The law reads as follows:

An act to replace the vocational rehabilitation act, to extend and revise the authorization of grants to states for vocational rehabilitation services, with special emphasis on services to those with the most severe handicaps, to expand special federal responsibilities and research and training programs with respect to handicapped individuals, to establish special responsibilities in the secretary of health, education, and welfare for coordination of all programs with respect to handicapped individuals within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and for other purposes.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first legislation to address the notion of equal access for individuals with disabilities through the removal of architectural, employment, and transportation barriers. It also created rights of persons with disabilities through affirmative action programs. In addition, the legislation attempted to address some of the societal barriers faced by individuals with disabilities, including isolation by placement in institutions, limited access to buildings, and discrimination in education and employment.   

Principal sections of Title V – Rights and Advocacy of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 include the following:

● Section 501, which bars employment discrimination in the federal government

● Section 502, which created the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board to enforce standards set by the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968

● Section 503, which prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating in employment against individuals with disabilities and requires those employers to take affirmative action to recruit, hire, promote, and retain these individuals

● Section 504, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs receiving federal financial assistance

● Section 505, which addresses remedies and attorneys’ fees under Section 501

● Section 508, which promotes access to communication and computer technology

The Rehabilitation Act was subsequently amended in 1978, 1986, 1992, and 2015.

Section 504 was modeled after Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, it states: “No qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, 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 United States Postal Service.” Section 504 covers “a college, university, or other postsecondary institution, or a public system of higher education” as well as other programs receiving federal funds.

The insertion of Section 504 into the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 succeeded where attempts to enact civil rights protections for Americans with disabilities in 1964 were reportedly rebuffed. Previously, the Rehabilitation Act and its predecessors provided funding for vocational rehabilitation opportunities and programs, but this little-noticed provision created legally enforceable civil rights. 

According to historians, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was never discussed by Democrats or Republicans in debates leading to its enactment. Some speculate as to how the provision even made its way into the bill, with some believing that Congressional staffers slipped the language in late in the approval process. 

James L. Cherry, a Howard University law student with a disability, sued the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) — the predecessor of the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services — when he learned that the agency was not planning to promulgate regulations for Section 504. While HEW under President Gerald Ford — who succeeded Nixon — drafted regulations to enforce the section, the rules were not issued, and Cherry sued HEW in 1976 (Cherry v. Matthews). Despite his legal action, in which a federal court ordered HEW to comply, the regulations were not issued until 1977, when the Carter administration was reportedly confronted with demonstrations by disability rights organizations. The regulations were ultimately signed on May 4, 1977. 

James Cherry wrote about his experience advocating for the release of these much-needed regulations: “In 1970 we had no right to education, to employment, to transportation, to housing, or to voting. There were no civil rights laws for us, no federal advocacy grants. Few people looked beyond our medical needs.”

The Rehabilitation Act served as a watershed moment in disability rights history. Most of its protections were eventually expanded to all organizations serving the public, regardless of whether they receive federal funds, via the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.●

Shirley J. Wilcher, JD, CAAP, is the executive director of the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity. Wilcher is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. The AAAED is a partner of INSIGHT Into Diversity.