Federal Law > Discrimination Laws > The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973


Purpose and coverage. The Rehabilitation Act of 19731 provides opportunities and protects handicapped individuals employed by the federal government, government contractors and employers receiving federal financial assistance.

A handicapped person under the Rehabilitation Act is a person with a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities. Like the Americans With Disabilities Act, the individual must have a record of such an impairment or be regarded as having an impairment.2
The Americans With Disabilities Act amended the Rehabilitation Act to exclude individuals currently engaging in illegal drug use or alcoholics whose current use of alcohol or drugs prevents them from performing their job duties. Persons who are participating in a supervised rehabilitation program or who have successfully completed such a program and are not engaging in the use of illegal drugs, are protected under the Rehabilitation Act.3

Affirmative action. Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act4 requires that federal contractors and subcontractors with federal contracts in excess of $2500 must have an affirmative action clause in each of its contracts. In addition, the employer's affirmative action obligation must be posted where employees can see it. Also, under Section 503 of the Act, employers with fifty or more employees and federal contracts of at least $50,000 must prepare a written affirmative action program within 120 days after obtaining the federal contract pursuant to regulations issued under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act. The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) enforces the Act in order to ensure compliance with its requirements. The OFCCP has the power to investigate, seek court orders to enforce the affirmative action obligations, withhold payments due on a contract, terminate contracts and "debar" or prevent the contractor from receiving government contracts in the future.

Private right of action. Most suits brought by individuals under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are brought under Section 504 of the Act. Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of handicap in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.5 In order to sue under Section 504, the individual must be "handicapped" and "otherwise qualified" as defined by the Act.6

  1. 29 U.S.C. § 701, et seq.

  2. 29 U.S.C. § 706.

  3. 29 U.S.C. § 706.

  4. 29 U.S.C. § 793.

  5. 29 U.S.C. § 794.

  6. 29 U.S.C. § 706.
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