The Rehabilitation Act's 30-Year Legacy
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is landmark legislation. It is widely considered the first civil rights statute in the world for persons with disabilities. Its earliest days were checkered, however. For more than three years after its enactment, no implementing rules had been issued, and the effect of the Rehabilitation Act remained more cosmetic than real. It took strong grass roots pressure, which culminated in massive demonstrations and sit-ins, to persuade Congress to pass regulations under Section 504 in late April, 1977. This article briefly summarizes the Rehabilitation Act's key provisions and how they have affected disability rights these past 30 years.
The Rehabilitation Act is a national law and is published in the U.S. Code at 29 U.S.C. Section 794. Its implementing regulations are published in the Code of Federal Regulations at 40 C.F.R. Part 7. These laws protect "qualified individuals with a disability" from discrimination. They apply to all employers and organizations in the country that receive financial assistance from any Federal department or agency.
Under Section 504, individuals with disabilities are defined as persons with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. Major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, working, performing manual tasks and learning.
The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination in the availability, accessibility and delivery of program benefits and services. As a result, an employer or organization that receives Federal funds may not:
*deny persons with disabilities the equal opportunity to participate in, or benefit from, Federal programs and services,
*deny access to programs, services or benefits because of physical barriers, or
*deny employment opportunities, including hiring, promotion, training or fringe benefits for which persons with disabilities.
Section 504 became controversial soon after the enactment of its implementing regulations in April, 1977. Many lawsuits were filed against certain target defendants - most notably airports, colleges and universities, and public libraries. Throughout the Regan administration, efforts were made to weaken the statute's civil rights protections. These efforts failed. Instead of limiting Section 504, Congress ultimately expanded its protections to include much of the private sector when it adopted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.
The Rehabilitation Act paved the way for the ADA's enactment. While both statutes prohibit discrimination against individuals based upon their disability, the scope of the two laws is much different. The Rehabilitation Act is limited to Federal agencies, contractors and other recipients of Federal funds, while the ADA applies to all private employers with over 15 employees, as well as state and local governments.
Although the Rehabilitation Act's language does not specifically say so, the courts have ruled that persons have a private right of action for monetary damages under Section 504. The U. S. Supreme Court clarified this right in 2002 in the leading case of Barnes v. Gorman. In that case, the Supreme Court also held that the remedies for violations of the Rehabilitation Act are "co-extensive" with the remedies available under the ADA. Because much of the terminology in the ADA mirrors that in the Rehabilitation Act, the Federal courts have consistently looked to cases construing Section 504 for guidance when deciding ADA challenges, and vice versa. See, for example, Cummings v. Norton, 393 F.3d 1186, 1190 n. 2 (10th Cir. 2005).
Remedies under the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA include monetary damages, but not punitive awards. A detailed discussion of liability under these laws would be beyond the scope of this article. In general, however, decisions regarding eligibility, entitlement, discrimination and reasonable accommodation must be determined on a case by case basis.
Apart from inspiring the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act has also spurred the development of other important legislation benefiting the disability community. Such statutes include: 1) the Individuals with Disability Education Act, which mandates that all children with disabilities receive a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment, 2) the Air Carrier Access Act, which affords accessibility rights to air travelers, and 3) the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, which prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in the sale or rental of housing. Ultimately, Section 504 has changed both the physical and intellectual landscape of America ... from curb cuts and enlarged doorways to progressive policies and more enlightened minds.
While the battle for equal rights is far from over, the 30-year history of the Rehabilitation Act and its implementing regulations represents an important success story. The dogged determination of the disability community first caused the regulations to issue in 1977 and then fostered a further expansion of those rights in a variety of additional contexts. In disability law, like life in general, perseverance has paid off.