Section 504 & 508

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History of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Sections of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973


The Rehabilitation Act was enacted in 1973 as a federal anti-discrimination law that implicates federal and federally-funded programs in their treatment of individuals with disabilities. The Act originally placed the most emphasis on equal employment practices, reasonable accommodations, and federally subsidized programming for individuals with disabilities. However, amendments to the act have led to a more far-reaching interpretation of the law. Sections 504 and 508 are sections under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

A Brief History of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

In 1917-18, after the first world war, Congress created two acts to help soldiers coming back from the war. The first two acts passed by the Congress were the Vocation Act of 1917 and the Soldiers Rehabilitation Act of 1918. These were passed to assist men returning from war re-integrate into the community and find work. After subsequent wars, the number of persons with disability grew, and the Rehabilitation office requested that Congress allow more people to be covered under the 1917-18 acts, but it was rejected. Even the civil rights movement did not include the rights of people with disabilities. Therefore, in 1973, the Rehabilitation Act was created, which replaced and expanded the Vocational Rehabilitation Act to broaden both the protection of individuals with disabilities and the funding for disability programs and services. The Rehab Act has several sections, which are described in some detail below.

Sections of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 501

Section 501 prohibits federal agents from discriminating against qualified individuals with a disability. It also encourages businesses to hire qualified individuals and obligates these businesses to offer employment advancements to individuals whose work meets the necessary requirements.

Section 503

Section 503 is similar to Section 501, but it deals specifically with the  hiring, placement, and advancement of people with disabilities and includes federal contractors and subcontractors. In 2014, a new rule was added that sets a “utilization goal.” This utilization goal states that all workforces and job categories should aim to have at least 7% of their employee populations be individuals with a disability and whether they are qualified for their respective positions.

Section 504

Section 504 is widely considered to be the first statute to declare civil rights for individuals with disabilities. It states specifically that: "No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States […] 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 or any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service."

Section 504 further defines individuals with disabilities as "persons with a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities." For purposes of employment, Section 504 also clarifies that qualified individuals with disabilities "are persons who, with Reasonable Accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job for which they have applied or have been hired to perform."

In addition to federal programs and agencies, the law includes programs that receive federal funding, which subsidizes airports, colleges and universities, federally assisted housing, and public libraries, among others. Section 504 further implicates any "local educational agency, system of vocational education, or other school system," which means that K-12 schools are prohibited from denying public education or extracurricular activity participation because of a child's disability. Section 504 in fact expands the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to protect a broader range of children with disabilities.

This section was not a part of the Act when it was signed. For twenty-five days, between April 5 and April 28, 1977, hundreds of disabled and handicapped activists organized sit-ins, protested, and occupied government buildings around the country to pressure the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Joseph Califano, to enact Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and publish regulations to guide its enforcement. Their efforts were successful when Secretary Califano enacted the regulations for Section 504 on April 28, 1977.

This was the most-powerful federal protection for disabled people in the United States before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This section dictates that reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities exist and that there is program accessibility and effective communication with people who have hearing and vision disabilities. This section also ensures that people with disabilities are provided with accessible new construction and alterations. Each federal agency has its own section in this section. For example, the 504 of the Department of Health and Human Services makes sure that doctors’ offices and clinics are accessible, and the United States Department of Education makes sure that students with disabilities receive the kind of education services to be successful in school.

Section 505

This section supplements Section 501 and deals with governing remedies and attorney’s fees.

Section 508

With the advent of the Internet, an amendment (Section 508) was signed into law in 1998, expanding the Rehabilitation Act to include equal access to electronic and information technology. Section 508 requires federal agencies to make their information and communication technology (ICT) accessible to people with disabilities.  An accessible information technology is one that can be operated in many ways and does not rely on a single sense or ability of the user. Section 508 does not apply only to federal agencies; it also impacts any company that does business with a federal agency. This includes private contractors, the financial industry, healthcare, many legal organizations, and others.

Information and Communication Technology refers to technologies that provide access to information through telecommunications. For example, ICT includes but is not limited to:

  • Telephones, smart phones and mobile devices
  • Televisions, DVD players and videotaped productions
  • Internet and Intranet websites
  • PDF documents
  • Content on DVDs and CDs
  • Online training
  • Webinars and teleconferencing
  • Technical support call centers
  • Remote access websites and tools
  • Tablet, laptop and desktop computers
  • Software and operating systems
  • User guides for software and tools
  • Copiers, printers and fax machines

Technology plays an increasingly important role in education at all levels. Schools and colleges now routinely use computers in traditional classrooms, electronic book readers that supplement or replace paper textbooks, online classes, and online registration and class scheduling. Section 504 and 508 require schools and colleges to ensure that the technology they use is fully accessible to individuals with disabilities or to provide equal access to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology. 

Consequences of not conforming to Section 508: 

  • People consequences: Nonconformance to section 508 may prevent individuals with disabilities from obtaining the same information as non-disabled individuals. Your website or technology may become less usable due to it being inaccessible.
  • Legal consequences: Any person can file a legal complaint against your agency or department if they feel that the agency has not complied with accessible technology standards. This could lead to legal ramifications, and your agency or department may be required to pay attorney’s fees during the legal battle.

Section 508 now incorporates the universally accepted Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

How do sections 504 and 508 affect electronic information?

Organizations and agencies must ensure that all published electronic information is accessible using assistive technology commonly used by people with disabilities for information and communication to read and navigate electronic materials.  If an electronic publication cannot be made compliant, organizations and agencies must provide a reasonable alternative to the document.

All organizations and agencies must be able to meet the Section 504 obligation to provide equal opportunity to persons with disabilities and ensure effective communication by making information available in a Section 508-compliant form on its website/s or intranet(s).  In certain cases, in order to meet its Section 504 obligation, agencies may need to provide an appropriate auxiliary aid to an individual with a disability, regardless of whether information on its website meets accessibility requirements under Section 508.

Examples of situations where an agency or organization would be required to provide information to a person with disabilities in an alternate format:

  • A person who is blind requests an audio or Braille version of a publicly available report that is posted on an agency’s Section 508-compliant website. If this is necessary for getting equal access to information, the agency must provide the report in an alternate format, such as an audio file or Braille.  
  • If a person with physical/manual impairment cannot effectively use a computer requests an agency to provide web-based information in print and the printed version means providing equal access to the information for that person with disability, the agency must provide the information in print.