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Employment Protections Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: 50 Years of Protecting Americans with Disabilities in the Workplace

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Labor Commemorative Resource Guide: Recruitment, Hiring, and Employment of Individuals with Disabilities

I. Introduction

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the United States’ first major federal disability rights law.  Passed on September 26, 1973, the law opened doors for many qualified individuals with disabilities to enter, for the first time, the federal and federal contractor workforce. While more work is needed to fully realize the goal of equal opportunity in employment for individuals with disabilities in the federal sector, the Rehabilitation Act introduced profound change. Among its impacts, the Rehabilitation Act served as the model for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which prohibits, among other things, employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the private sector.

The Rehabilitation Act has two core provisions that exclusively address employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Sections 501 and 503 of the Act prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in, respectively, federal employment and employment by certain federal contractors and subcontractors. The employment protections in Sections 501 and 503 have proven crucial to giving individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to apply for positions with and be employed by the federal government or employers receiving federal contracts.

This Commemorative Resource Guide, marking the 50th Anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act, pulls together valuable, in-depth resources from three federal agency offices that play key roles in Rehabilitation Act enforcement, outreach, and education:   

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Congress gave the EEOC express authority to issue substantive regulations under Section 501. Also, the EEOC is required to review regulations and other EEO policy-related documents before they are issued to ensure consistency in the federal government’s effort to combat workplace discrimination. Under Executive Order 12067, the EEOC has responsibility for enforcing all federal EEO laws, including the Rehabilitation Act, and the duty to coordinate and lead the federal government’s effort to eradicate workplace discrimination.

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCCP) at the U.S. Department of Labor is responsible for enforcing Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act.  OFCCP conducts compliance evaluations of the employment practices of Federal contractors and subcontractors and investigates complaints. OFCCP also engages in outreach to job-seekers and employees of Federal contractors to educate them about their rights, and provides technical assistance to contractors on their obligations.

The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) at the U.S. Department of Labor develops and influences policies and practices that increase the number and quality of employment opportunities for people with disabilities. To fulfill this mission, ODEP promotes the adoption and implementation of ODEP policy strategies and effective practices—meaning those that ODEP has developed and/or validated—that will impact the employment of people with disabilities. ODEP’s approach is to drive systems and practice changes by disseminating ODEP policy strategies and effective practices, sharing information, and providing technical assistance to government agencies, service providers and non-governmental entities, as well as public and private employers.

The EEOC and the Department of Labor’s OFCCP and ODEP work together to support and administer these key provisions of the Rehabilitation Act, and to ensure that individuals with disabilities receive equal employment opportunities in the federal sector and federal contracting. 

II. Disability Terminology Under the Rehabilitation Act

Under the Rehabilitation Act, including Sections 501 and 503, the term “disability” is defined by regulation to have the same meaning as it does under the ADA. Since the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) became effective in 2009, the ADA’s definition of “disability” has been very broad. It includes many kinds of mental and physical medical conditions. A condition does not have to be permanent or severe to be an ADA disability.

Targeted disabilities are a subset of the larger disability category, applicable only under Section 501. The federal government has recognized that qualified individuals with certain disabilities face significant barriers to employment, above and beyond the barriers faced by people with the broader range of disabilities. These barriers are often due to myths, fears, and stereotypes about such disabilities. The federal government calls these “targeted disabilities.” Some examples of targeted disabilities include: significant mobility impairments; blindness; deafness; significant psychiatric disorders; epilepsy; and traumatic brain injury.

III. Section 501 – Federal Government Agencies

Section 501 is a non-discrimination law specific to employment with the Federal government that:

  • Protects qualified individuals with disabilities from disparate treatment or harassment based on disability;
  • Provides that, absent undue hardship, agencies must provide reasonable accommodation for the known physical or mental limitations of a qualified individual with a disability;
  • Limits the extent to which agencies may ask applicants and employees (not just individuals with disabilities) questions about disability or require them to take medical examinations;
  • Requires agencies to keep medical information about all applicants and employees (not just individuals with disabilities) confidential; and
  • Prohibits retaliation against all applicants and employees (not just individuals with disabilities) who oppose employer actions made unlawful under the Rehabilitation Act, or who participate or assist others in the EEO process.

The Section 501 regulations require that the federal government be a “model employer” with respect to the employment of individuals with disabilities. Annually, covered agencies review their equal employment opportunity (EEO) and personnel programs, policies, and performance standards in accordance with specified criteria to identify where their EEO programs can become more effective and to identify and eliminate barriers that hamper the advancement of any applicants or employees with disabilities.

The stages of the employment process where federal agencies may play a key role in advancing equal opportunity for applicants and employees with disabilities are during recruitment, hiring, and employment.

Recruitment and Hiring

Section 501 requires federal agencies to recruit individuals with disabilities and to ensure that individuals with disabilities are aware of and have an opportunity to apply for positions. It also requires agencies to have sufficient staff to answer disability-related questions from applicants and members of the public and to process requests for reasonable accommodations in the hiring process and applications under the Schedule A hiring authority for individuals with certain disabilities.

The goal of the hiring process is to attract and identify the individual who has the best mix of skills and attributes for the job available. Ensuring that all qualified individuals can participate in the process is key to achieving this goal. By examining their hiring procedures and implementing some simple steps, employers can widen their pool of potential talent and ensure that they do not miss out when the best person for the job happens to have a disability.

Key Resource: Workforce Recruitment Program

The Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP) is recognized by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) as a model strategy in its guidance to federal agencies regarding the recruitment and hiring of people with disabilities. WRP is a recruitment and referral program that connects federal and private-sector employers nationwide with college students and recent graduates with disabilities who are eager to demonstrate their abilities in the workplace through summer or permanent jobs.

Retention and Advancement

The Section 501 regulation requires agencies to have sufficient opportunities for employees with disabilities to advance within the agency. Such activities might include specialized training and mentoring programs and strong enforcement against disability-based harassment. The regulation also includes requirements for agencies to strengthen their programs for reasonable accommodations and ensure accessibility.

Reasonable Accommodation

A reasonable accommodation is a change in the way things are normally done that allows an individual with a disability to apply for a job, do a job, or enjoy equal access to the benefits and privileges of employment. Federal employers have been required to provide reasonable accommodations since the 1970s. Section 501 requires federal agencies to have written, easily available and understood reasonable accommodation procedures and a written explanation whenever a request for a reasonable accommodation is denied. It also requires agencies to make sure that key decision-makers know how to access the resources necessary to pay for reasonable accommodations that are legally required.

Key Resource: Job Accommodation Network

The Job Accommodation Network is a service of ODEP. JAN provides free one-on-one practical guidance and technical assistance on job accommodation solutions. JAN provides individualized consultation to assist:

  • Employers and their representatives seeking guidance on practical ways to engage in the interactive process, provide job accommodation solutions, and comply with Title I of the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act;
  • Individuals with health conditions and disabilities seeking information about job accommodation solutions, employment rights under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act, and self-employment and entrepreneurship opportunities; and
  • Family members and rehabilitation, medical, educational, and other professionals in their effort to support successful employment outcomes for individuals with health conditions and disabilities.

Personal Assistance Services

Section 501 requires federal agencies to provide personal assistance services to employees who need them because of a targeted disability, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the agency. Personal assistance services differ from medical services and services that are typically performed by someone who often has the job title of “personal assistant.” Personal assistance services are non-medical services such as helping an individual take off and put on a coat, eat, and use the restroom. These services are needed by individuals whose specific disabilities make it difficult for them to perform such activities on their own.

IV.  Section 503 – Federal Contractors and Subcontractors

Under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, federal contractors and subcontractors—those who do business with the federal government—are prohibited from discriminating in employment against individuals with disabilities. Section 503 also requires many of these employers to take proactive steps to recruit, hire, retain, and advance qualified people with disabilities.

The prohibition against discrimination under Section 503 applies to the following employment activities:

  • Recruitment, advertising, and job application procedures;
  • Hiring, upgrading, promotion, award of tenure, demotion, transfer, layoff, termination, right of return from layoff, and rehiring;
  • Rates of pay or any other form of compensation and changes in compensation;
  • Job assignments, job classifications, organizational structures, position descriptions, lines of progression, and seniority lists;
  • Leaves of absence, sick leave, or any other leave;
  • Fringe benefits available by virtue of employment, whether or not administered by the contractor;
  • Selection and financial support for training, including apprenticeships, professional meetings, conferences and other related activities, and selection for leaves of absence to pursue training;
  • Activities sponsored by the contractor including social and recreational programs; and
  • Any other term, condition, or privilege of employment.

Section 503 and its implementing regulations establish obligations for covered contractors and subcontractors related to individuals with disabilities. They define coverage, specify clauses to be included in contracts, address evaluation procedures to ensure compliance by covered contractors, specify certain reporting and recordkeeping requirements. 

Federal Contractor Obligations Under Section 503

Federal contractors with 50 or more employees and a federal government contract or subcontract of $50,000 or more are also required to develop and maintain an affirmative action program (AAP) for each establishment within 120 days from the start of the contract. The AAP is prospective in nature and establishes, in writing, a program for the contractor to follow for one year, with the overall goal of affording equal employment opportunity for individuals with disabilities. During the AAP year, the contractor collects and analyzes certain information, to help the contractor measure its progress toward the overall goal. Every year, the contractor also audits and updates its AAP(s), revising it if a program is ineffective. Some of the other key components of the AAP include:

  • Evaluating whether the percentage of individuals with disabilities employed by a federal contractor meets or exceeds the 7% utilization goal established by OFCCP;
  • Determining whether and where impediments to equal employment opportunity exist if the utilization goal is not met and identifying specific problem areas;
  • Developing action-oriented programs to address identified problem areas;
  • Providing applicants and employees an opportunity to self-identify as an individual with a disability;
  • Reviewing personnel practices to ensure that the job qualifications of applicants and employees with known disabilities are given careful, thorough, and systematic consideration for job vacancies filled either by hiring or promotion, and for all training opportunities offered or available;
  • Providing a schedule for the periodic review of all physical and mental job qualification standards to ensure that any qualification standard that screens out or tends to screen out qualified individuals with disabilities is job-related and consistent with business necessity;
  • Being proactive in asking whether employees with known disabilities need reasonable accommodations;
  • Developing and implementing procedures to ensure that employees are not harassed on the basis of disability; and,
  • Undertaking outreach and positive recruitment activities that are reasonably designed to be effective in recruiting qualified individuals with disabilities, and annually assessing the outreach efforts.

Recruitment and Hiring “Best Practices”

By using inclusive recruiting methods that reach all potential workers, contractors can both expand their applicant pools and diversify their workforces in order to find the most qualified workers. To get the most out of their recruitment, contractors should regularly review their outreach and hiring practices to learn whether certain groups are being excluded, not just from being hired, but from even entering the applicant pool. Contractors should consider whether practices such as word‐of‐mouth recruiting, hiring only previous workers when new positions or opportunities for work arise, or picking up day laborers in particular locations are having an adverse impact on hiring.

Retention and Advancement “Best Practices”

One of the best ways to prevent or uncover discrimination is to regularly review data related to applicants and hires to assess whether any particular group of applicants is being disproportionately screened out at a certain stage of the process. This data should include an applicant flow log, which is a chronological list of applicants (including internet applicants) for employment or promotion, showing each individual, categorized by race, sex, ethnicity, disability, and protected veteran status, who applied for each job title (or group of jobs requiring similar qualifications) during a specific period. Contractors should also ensure that employees responsible for making hiring, assignment, or promotion decisions are applying the criteria equally to all applicants or candidates. Additionally, contractors should review their compensation policies to make sure employees are not subject to wage discrimination.

V. Key Resources: Guidance and Technical Assistance

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Resources

Federal Sector Resources

Landing Pages for EEOC Disability-Related Employment Resources

Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) Resources

Federal  Contractor Resources

Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) Resources

Federal Sector Resources

Landing Pages for ODEP Disability-Related Employment Resources

ODEP-Funded Resources and Programs

Other Relevant Federal Government Resources

VI. Where to Find Help

  • Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP)
    • Individuals who wish to contact ODEP may:
      • Direct general questions to 1-866-ODEP-DOL (633-7365) | 202-693-7880. (Individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have a speech disability, please dial 7-1-1 to access telecommunications relay services);
      • Email inquiries to; or
      • Visit ODEP’s Contact Menu.

VII. Relevant Laws and Regulations


Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act): 29 USC § 791, et seq.

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): 42 USC § 12101, et seq.


Title I of the ADA: 29 CFR part 1630

Federal Sector Equal Employment Opportunity (including Section 501): 29 CFR part 1614

Section 503: 41 CFR part 60-741

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