The Rehabilitation Act Turns 50

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This year marks an important holiday in the history of our nation: The 50th anniversary of the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. While most people are familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which will be 33 years old on July 26, fewer are familiar with the Rehabilitation Act. But the Rehab Act, as it is often called, was an important forerunner to the ADA.

The passage of Section 504 of the Rehab Act – which bans discrimination on the basis of disability by recipients of federal funds – represented a profound and historic shift in public policy toward people with disabilities. Modeled on other federal civil rights laws that banned discrimination on the basis of race, ethnic origin, and gender, the Rehab Act marked the first time that excluding or segregating people because of their disabilities was recognized as discrimination.

Before the Rehab Act was passed, society assumed the difficulties people with disabilities faced in finding employment or accessing educational opportunities were caused by the disabilities themselves. The new law recognized that many of the hurdles people with disabilities faced were caused by a society that failed to recognize their capabilities and openly denied them opportunities. Legendary disability rights activist Judy Heumann, who passed away in March, often recounted how she was turned away from her neighborhood school in kindergarten because, as a wheelchair user, the principal deemed her a “fire hazard.”

As groundbreaking as the Rehab Act was, it applied only to recipients of federal funds. The federal regulations implementing it served as the basis for the much more widely known ADA, which prevents discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. The protections of the ADA and Rehab Act overlap and/or complement each other in some ways.

In our digital age, an important provision of the Rehab Act is Section 508, added in 1998, that requires electronic and information technology developed, maintained, procured, or used by the federal government to be accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public. The public accommodations provisions in Title III of the ADA have been interpreted to include requirements for electronic and information technology accessibility by nongovernmental entities, similar to the requirements of Section 508.

Updates made in 2018 to Section 508 and the rules implementing it require that every online platform run by federal entities or any organization that receives federal funding must comply with rules set out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA, created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The WCAG guidelines were developed by individuals and organizations around the world to provide a shared international standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments.

Although no similar rules outlining when a website does or does not comply with the ADA have been issued, the WCAG rules are generally considered a benchmark standard. Because they meet requirements under Section 508, compliance with WCAG 2.0 is often seen as a good-faith effort to meet the ADA requirements as well.

NIB offers three levels of Section 508 Assurance Services for businesses that need help evaluating their electronic documents, software, and systems for accessibility and usability compliance with Section 508, the ADA, or both:

  • Conformance and Usability Assessment
  • Conformance and Usability Assessment with Remediation Project Management
  • Conformance and Usability System Development

For more information on these services, contact the NIB services team at 1-877-438-5963 or

Passage of the Rehab Act was a watershed moment in the history of our country. Updated provisions like Section 508 are a continuing promise to people with disabilities that they are valued in our society and that inclusion is a priority. NIB and its associated agencies are proud to embrace that promise and continue the work to make our nation more equitable for all.