Celebrating 50 Years of the Rehabilitation Act: Advancing Disability Rights

Celebrating 50 Years of the Rehabilitation Act: Advancing Disability Rights

On September 26, we mark the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a monumental civil rights law that mandates equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

This transformative legislation prohibits disability discrimination within federal agencies, entities receiving federal financial assistance, federal employment, and the employment practices of federal contractors.

Furthermore, it mandates the accessibility of information and communication technology across federal agencies.

Notably, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, applicable to federal agencies and entities receiving federal financial assistance, laid the foundation for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the vital work on disability rights conducted by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

Leading Coordination for Section 504 Enforcement

The Department of Justice (DOJ) plays a central role as the primary agency responsible for coordinating Section 504 regulatory oversight and enforcement efforts throughout the federal government.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act, we highlight recent instances of the DOJ’s commitment to Section 504 enforcement and underscore its coordination role.

Ensuring Accessibility of Public Spaces

Last year, the DOJ intervened in a lawsuit against the city of San Juan, Puerto Rico, alleging violations of Section 504 and the ADA.

The lawsuit claimed that city sidewalks and curb ramps failed to provide equal access to individuals with mobility disabilities.

In response, the court approved an interim order mandating a comprehensive accessibility assessment of public sidewalks in San Juan, setting the stage for rectifying accessibility barriers.

Additionally, in 2021, the DOJ intervened in a lawsuit against the City of Chicago, addressing the absence of accessible pedestrian signals (APS) at over 99% of its street intersections with pedestrian signals.

The lawsuit alleged violations of Section 504 and the ADA, emphasizing the importance of APS in enabling individuals who are blind, deaf-blind, or have low vision to safely cross streets.

Protecting Disability Rights in Law Enforcement Interactions

In May, the DOJ filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit against a Louisiana sheriff and deputies following the tragic death of a 16-year-old child with autism during a law enforcement response to the child’s disability-related sensory episode.

The DOJ’s involvement clarified how Section 504 and the ADA apply to law enforcement encounters with individuals facing disability-related crises, emphasizing the duty of law enforcement agencies to provide equal access to services during emergency calls and to adapt procedures to ensure safety and effectiveness.

Moreover, the DOJ filed statements of interest in cases involving school resource officers (SROs) who arrested students with disabilities.

These cases addressed aggressive handcuffing and subsequent neglect of children with disabilities, emphasizing the application of Section 504 and the ADA when law enforcement agencies arrest individuals with disabilities, including children. The statements provided guidance on reasonable modifications.

Online Accessibility in Postsecondary Education

In May, the DOJ, in collaboration with the Department of Education, issued a Dear Colleague Letter, underscoring the responsibility of postsecondary institutions under Section 504 and the ADA to ensure the accessibility of online services, programs, and activities.

The letter reinforced the DOJ’s commitment to online accessibility and aligned with its ongoing efforts, including jointly filed statements of interest in cases involving Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Coordination and Consistent Implementation of Section 504

Executive Order 12250, issued in 1980, charges the DOJ with ensuring the consistent and effective implementation of Section 504 across federal agencies.

To fulfill this mandate, the DOJ collaborates with over 35 federal agencies, reviewing regulations, offering legal counsel, facilitating information sharing, delivering training, forming strategic partnerships, providing technical assistance on data collection, interpreting Section 504, and developing written guidance.

The DOJ also refers disability discrimination complaints to relevant federal agencies, referring over 4,500 complaints in the past year.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act, the Department of Justice reflects on this historic legislation’s profound impact.

It acknowledges the ongoing and future efforts to eradicate disability discrimination and promote a more inclusive and equitable society for all.

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