Definition of Disability under the Rehabilitation Act

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 What Is The Rehabilitation Act Of 1937?

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as Amended prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in:

  • Programs that are conducted by federal agencies;
  • Programs that are receiving federal financial assistance;
  • Federal employment; and
  • The employment practices of federal contractors.

In terms of the standards that are used for determining employment discrimination under the Rehab Act, they are the same as that of Title I of the ADA in that they protect “qualified individuals with disabilities.”

According to the Act, an individual with a disability is defined as a person who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of their major life activities;
  • Has a record of such impairment; and/or
  • Is regarded as having such an impairment.

The Act defines the term “qualified” as meaning that the person satisfies the job-related requirements of the position they hold, or is applying for, and can perform its essential functions. This applies whether the performance is with or without a reasonable accommodation.

The Rehab Act of 1973 contains several sections, some of which are:

  • Section 501: This section prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the federal sector. This includes the U.S. Postal Service, the Postal Regulatory Commission, and the Smithsonian Institution. However, it does not require these entities to have a minimum number of employees at the worksite in order to be covered.
    • In February 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding Section 501. This consolidates existing requirements from a variety of sources, and sets a goal for federal agency workforces of 12 percent representation for disabled people, and 2 percent for those with “targeted” disabilities;
  • Section 503: Section 503 prohibits employers with federal contracts, or subcontracts, from discriminating against disabled applicants and employees by requiring affirmative steps to hire, retain, and promote qualified disabled workers. These non-discrimination provisions apply to all companies who have contracts in excess of $10,000; however, the affirmative action provisions only apply to companies with 50 or more employees, and contracts of $50,000 or more. 2014 updates to Section 503 created a 7 percent representation goal, as well as a requirement that employers must invite applicants and employees to self-identify as disabled;
  • Section 504: Section 504 prohibits discrimination against qualified disabled people by any program or activity that is receiving federal financial assistance. This also includes any program or activity that is conducted by a federal executive agency, as well as the U.S. Postal Service. For programs or activities that are receiving federal financial assistance, there is no minimum coverage that must be met.
    • Additionally, there is no requirement stating that recipients or executive agencies must have a certain number of employees. This particular section protects qualified disabled individuals who apply to and participate in such programs, as well as job applicants and employees of the organizations that provide them. Section 504 will be further discussed below; and
  • Section 508: This section addresses information technology; specifically, it requires federal agencies’ information and communications technology to be accessible to disabled people. This includes employees as well as members of the public. Although Section 508 of the Act only applies to federal agencies, there are many private employers who have adapted their standards in order to ensure that their technology infrastructure is accessible.

How Does The Rehabilitation Act Of 1973 Define The Term “Disability”?

To reiterate, the Act has determined that a person is diabled if they:

  • Have a physical and/or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of their major life activities;
  • Have a record of such impairment; and/or
  • Are regarded as having such an impairment.

Specifically, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is what defines the term. Those with a history of their specific impairment, or who are regarded as having an impairment, will also be extended protection under the Act.

In order to ensure that anyone who is disabled is offered protection, the Rehabilitation Act does not list specific illnesses or impairments in its definition of what constitutes a disability. However, some impairments that qualify for disability under Section 504 include:

Physiological disorders, such as hearing, vision, or motor function impairments, and/or issues associated with cellular growth;
Neurological disorders, such as multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy; and
Psychological disorders, such as learning disabilities and/or other mental illnesses.

Because the Rehabilitation Act does not list any specific illnesses, the determining factor is generally whether the impairment limits the person’s major life activities, such as:

  • Performing physical tasks;
  • Working;
  • Walking;
  • Speaking;
  • Learning;
  • Eating; and/or
  • Breathing.

Impairment is generally proven through a variety of documents, such as medical records, in support of the person’s disability claim.

What Is The Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”)? How Is It Similar To Or Different From The Rehabilitation Act?

In July of 1990, a law known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) was passed by the American federal government. The ADA attempts to combat discrimination against disabled people; more specifically, the ADA provides civil rights protections to those same people. An example of this would be how the ADA guarantees the right to equal opportunity in employment, public accommodations, transportation, and housing.

One of the defining aspects of the ADA is that it prohibits both public and private employers from discriminating against an employee or job applicant who is disabled. Specifically, Title I of the ADA has made it illegal for employers to discriminate against disabled employees or job candidates throughout the entire employment process. This includes:

  • When candidate is applying for a job;
  • During the interview process;
  • If the application involves testing such as grammar tests;
  • If the job requires special training, such as company software;
  • When being considered for a job offer;
  • When an employer is assigning work projects or tasks;
  • During an employee evaluation or job performance review; and/or
  • Making decisions in terms of terminations and/or promotions.

Additionally, the ADA also prohibits employers from discriminating against someone because they are related to or associated with another disabled person.

In terms of similarities, the Rehabilitation Act covers any situation in which federal money is involved. This is regardless of whether they are operated by public or private institutions. The ADA also covers public entities and some private entities, so these entities do not need to receive federal funding. Because of this, the ADA is considered to be broader than the Rehabilitation Act.

Title II of the ADA defines disabled people in essentially the same way as the Rehabilitation Act. What this means is that a person with any physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits” one or more of their major life activities, or has a history of such impairment, will fit the definition of both the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA.

Do I Need An Attorney For A Disability Claim?

If you are facing discrimination due to being disabled, especially in the workplace, you should consult with an experienced and local discrimination lawyer as soon as possible. An attorney can help you understand your rights under various state laws and federal Acts, such as the ADA and/or The Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Your lawyer will also be able to represent you in court, as needed should any legal issues arise.

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