Skip to main content

Zoom Text:

All of this work took place in the context of significant changes in legislation.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (P.L. 93-112, Section 504) is often called the first civil rights act for people with disabilities (the second being the Americans with Disabilities Act). It authorized over $1 billion for training and placement of people with mental and physical disabilities into employment. It also provided the first focus on rehabilitation services for people with severe disabilities. Section 504 prohibited discrimination based on disability by any agency (including employers) receiving federal funds.

Karen Flippo recalls, however, that the impact of the anti-discrimination provisions was delayed. 

In 1977… on my first day of work, I walked a couple of blocks to the Federal Building in San Francisco.  Outside, protesters were calling for the promulgation of regulations for Section 504(d) of the Rehabilitation Act.  The few words carried in the regulations symbolized the power that drove the disability rights movement for many years, "no otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving financial assistance."

Man at a bus stop
Photo courtesy William Bronston, M.D.

In 1978, the Rehabilitation, Comprehensive Services, and Developmental Disabilities Amendments of 1978 (P.L. 95-602) broadened the scope of Section 504 to include the executive branch agencies of the federal government and the Postal Service.

Requirements common to federal agency Section 504 regulations included reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities; program accessibility; effective communication with people who have hearing or vision disabilities; and accessible new construction and alterations.

It also established new programs for people with disabilities, including independent living centers and pilot programs for employment.

Individual working in the community
Photo courtesy William Bronston, M.D.

While these were significant changes in legislation, it is important to remember that the Federal-State vocational rehabilitation program is an eligibility-based program, not an entitlement program. To receive vocational rehabilitation services, an individual must meet three eligibility criteria.

First, the individual must have a disability that causes an impediment to employment.

Second criterion is the presumption of employability.

Third the individual requires vocational rehabilitation services in order to become employed.

Individuals working in the community
Photo courtesy William Bronston, M.D.

Prior to a profound change in the legislation in 1992, state vocational rehabilitation agencies routinely presumed that individuals with severe disabilities were unemployable – they did not meet the second criterion. Congress determined in 1992 that the "employability" criterion was weeding out individuals with severe disabilities on the assumption that, in fact, they were too severe to be employable.

So in 1992, Congress said State vocational rehabilitation agencies will assume that everybody who has a disability can work. In other words, State vocational rehabilitation agencies would have to prove the assumption wrong rather than simply assuming the person was ineligible.