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Rehabilitation Act of 1973​

Categories: Education, Employment, Technology

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Public Law 93-112), as amended, provides formula grant programs for vocational rehabilitation (VR) services, supported employment, independent living, and client assistance. The U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) administers the grant program.

The Rehabilitation Act has a long history. It began with the Smith-Hughes Act enacted in 1917, which created a Federal Board of Vocational Education with responsibility for addressing VR needs of veterans with disabilities. Over the years, legislation expanded VR services to civilians with disabilities and broadened the type of assistance and services provided. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first law to provide equal access for people with disabilities by removing architectural, employment, and transportation barriers.

Section 501 and 503 of the law prohibits federal agencies from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Section 504 requires federal entities to make reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities. Section 504 includes public schools. Students who do not qualify for special education and related services may receive accommodations and modifications to remove barriers to learning in accordance with a 504 plan. Section 508 requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities.

The 1973 legislation created the Client Assistance Demonstration Projects (CAPS) to provide assistance in informing and advising clients and applicants of all available benefits under the Rehabilitation Act. The law also requires the development of the Individual Written Rehabilitation Plan (IWRP) and prioritizes services for persons with the most severe disabilities in vocational programs.

The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1978 authorized the Centers for Independent Living, Independent Living Services for Older Blind Individuals, and Protection and Advocacy of Individual Rights. The 1984 Amendments established the Client Assistance Program in each state. The 1992 Amendments emphasized employment as the primary goal of rehabilitation, mandated presumptive employability, and required that eligible individuals be provided choice and increased control in determining VR goals and service providers.

WIOA and Rehab Act Overview

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014 (Public Law 113-128) reauthorized the Rehabilitation Act, as amended. WIOA aligns the VR program with other workforce development programs by requiring a unified strategic plan, common performance accountability measures, and the establishment of a one-stop service delivery system. WIOA emphasizes competitive, integrated employment as the intended employment outcome for all VR program participants, including those with the most significant disabilities.

WIOA significantly limits placement at sheltered workshops and other work environments where people with disabilities earn less than minimum wage. The law emphasizes transition services for students with disabilities to enter the workforce by requiring state VR agencies to allocate at least 15 percent of their federal funding toward transition efforts. (Under the law, individuals with disabilities age 24 and younger are not allowed to work for less than the federal minimum wage unless they first receive pre-employment transition services at school and try vocational rehabilitation services.)

In addition, WIOA transferred these programs from the U.S. Department of Education to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living:

  • Centers for Independent Living Program
  • National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (now called National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research)
  • Programs under the Assistive Technology Act of 1998

WIOA also reauthorized the Independent Living program and the Assistive Technology Act. In doing so, it added a fifth component to the Independent Living (IL) Core Services definition that requires programs to: (i) facilitate the transition of individuals with significant disabilities from nursing homes and other institutions to home and community-based residences, with requisite supports and services; (ii) provide assistance to individuals with significant disabilities who are at risk of entering institutions so that the individuals may remain in the community; and (iii) facilitate the transition of youth with significant disabilities, who were eligible for Individualized Education Plans and have completed their secondary education or otherwise left school, to postsecondary life. The initial Independent Living requirements were: information and referral services, IL skills training, peer counseling, and individual and systems and advocacy.


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