The Rehabilitation Act (Rehab Act)
The Rehab Act includes four specific sections, each with implementing rules and regulations, designed to safeguard the civil rights of people with disabilities:
I. Section 501 of the Rehab Act
Section 501 protects qualified persons with disabilities from employment discrimination by federal departments and agencies. In addition, each federal agency is required to develop an affirmative action plan for hiring, placing, and advancing qualified individuals with disabilities. The nondiscrimination provisions of Section 501 are essentially the federal equivalent of the employment section (Title I) of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as the ADA doesn’t cover federal employers. The standards for determining employment discrimination under Section 501 are the same as those used in the ADA.
Federal agencies are prohibited from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in regard to any aspect of employment—including job application procedures, hiring, promotion, benefits, and training. This means that if a federal agency has an inaccessible website or plans to use inaccessible information and communication technology that would effectively prevent people with disabilities from applying for or performing a job, then the federal agency is at risk of a possible finding of discrimination. Also, some applicants and employees with disabilities may need reasonable accommodations to ensure access to information and data. The failure to provide reasonable accommodations would also place the federal agency at risk of a possible finding of discrimination. The federal agency also is likely to be violating Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (see below).
In February 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to update the Section 501 rules. For more information, please see: Ensuring Accessible Technology in Federal Workplaces: The Proposed Section 501 Rules
II. Section 503 of the Rehab Act
Section 503 applies to businesses that contract (or subcontract) with the federal government for more than $10,000. Covered contractors are prohibited from engaging in discrimination and are required to take affirmative action to employ and advance in employment qualified persons with disabilities. In addition, certain government contractors, specifically those with 50 or more employees and contracts in excess of $50,000, are required to develop specific affirmative action programs. In 2014, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) revised the regulations implementing Section 503 to include, among other things, specific goals applicable to people with disabilities.
The recent updates to the Section 503 regulation are fueling increased employer interest in accessible information and communication technologies that can support accessible workplaces—from accessible online job applications to talent management systems that can assist in recruitment and recordkeeping. In a nutshell, covered federal contractors must ensure that applicants and employees with disabilities have equal access to its personnel processes, including those implemented through information and communication technologies. The reasonable accommodation obligation extends to the contractor’s use of electronic or online application systems. Though not required by the Section 503 regulation, it is a best practice for the contractor to make its online application system accessible and compatible with assistive technologies used by individuals with disabilities.
III. Section 504 of the Rehab Act
Section 504 prohibits discrimination by any program or activity that receives federal financial assistance (including colleges and universities, airports, and public libraries) and federal agencies in the conduct of their programs. Each federal agency issues its own set of regulations.
The Department of Justice and the Department of Education have entered into numerous settlement agreements with recipients under Section 504 (and the ADA) under which the recipients agree to make their websites accessible to users with disabilities.
Section 508 focuses on accessible information and communication technology (ICT). It requires that when federal agencies develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic or information technology, they must ensure that the technology is accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, unless an "undue burden" would be imposed on the department or agency. Section 508 ensures that federal employees with disabilities have access to, and use of, the information and data they need to do their job in order to reduce barriers to job success and upward mobility. It also ensures that members of the public with disabilities have equal access to government information and services (including that about job opportunities with the federal government). The United States Access Board has issued regulations implementing Section 508.
The Section 508 rules detail the specific accessibility standards for ICT that federal agencies must use. In some ways, this section overlaps with other sections of the Rehab Act. For example, Section 501 prohibits federal agencies from discriminating against qualified individuals with employees. Section 508 lays out the specific standards on how to ensure that the information and communication technology being used doesn’t have a discriminatory effect or in some way deny equal opportunities in federal employment. If you're a federal government employer, the technology in your workplace must be accessible to all of your employees, and your websites must be accessible to all members of the public. In addition, if you're a private business that sells technology to the federal government, those products must be built to meet the Section 508 accessibility standards based on the regulations issued by the U.S. Access Board.
Section 508 Refresh:
In January 2017, the U.S. Access Board published a final rule to update the Section 508 requirements. The new version incorporates the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) 2.0, which are the internationally recognized standards developed and maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative.
For more information about the Section 508 refresh, please see: