September 26 marks the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a groundbreaking civil rights law that requires equal opportunity for people with disabilities. It prohibits disability discrimination in programs conducted by federal agencies, programs receiving federal financial assistance, federal employment and federal contractors' employment practices. It also requires accessibility of information and communication technology across federal agencies. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), which applies to federal agencies as well as programs receiving federal financial assistance, served as a foundation for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the disability rights work conducted by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
The department serves as the lead agency coordinating Section 504 regulatory and enforcement work across the federal government. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act, we showcase some recent examples of the department's enforcement of Section 504 and highlight the department's role in coordination.
Making Public Sidewalks and Pedestrian Signals Accessible
Last fall, the department intervened in a lawsuit alleging that San Juan, Puerto Rico, violates Section 504 and the ADA because city sidewalks and curb ramps failed to provide people with mobility disabilities equal access to its public sidewalk system. The department's allegations are based in part on findings by the Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration's Office of Civil Rights. In August, the Court entered the parties' interim proposed order requiring San Juan to conduct a comprehensive accessibility assessment of its public sidewalks and to begin fixing accessibility barriers.
In 2021, the department intervened in a lawsuit alleging that the City of Chicago's lack of accessible pedestrian signals (APS) at over 99% of its street intersections with pedestrian signals violates Section 504 and the ADA. APS provide safe-crossing information in a non-visual manner to allow people who are blind, deaf-blind or have low vision to cross the street. In March, the Court ruled for the United States and private plaintiffs and will soon consider a request to provide meaningful access to APS.
Protecting the Rights of People with Disabilities Interacting with Law Enforcement
In May, the department filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit brought against a Louisiana sheriff and several deputies after a 16 year-old child with autism died while law enforcement officers responded to the child's disability-related acute sensory episode. The complaint alleges that the officers kept the child pinned face down on the ground, handcuffed and shackled, ultimately resulting in the child's death. The department's brief clarifies how Section 504 and the ADA apply to law enforcement encounters with people experiencing disability-related crises, including how law enforcement agencies must provide people with disabilities both an equal opportunity to benefit from the agencies' services when officers respond to emergency calls, and reasonable modifications to agency procedures to ensure a safe and effective response.
In 2021 and 2022, the department filed statements of interest in a case alleging that school resource officers (SROs) violated Section 504 and Title II while arresting a student and during post-arrest proceedings by aggressively handcuffing the child who was sitting quietly and calmly with a school psychologist and then leaving him in a patrol car for hours while he banged his head repeatedly against the car's plexiglass and cried. The 2021 statement of interest explains how Section 504 and the ADA apply when law enforcement agencies arrest people with disabilities, including when SROs arrest children with disabilities and describes reasonable modifications. The 2022 statement of interest clarifies that a school district cannot divest itself of responsibility to comply with Section 504 or the ADA by contracting with SROs, private security guards or any other contractors.
Ensuring Online Accessibility at Postsecondary Institutions
In May, the department issued a Dear Colleague Letter jointly with the Department of Education that reminds postsecondary institutions of their responsibility under Section 504 and ADA to ensure that their online services, programs and activities are accessible. The letter adds to the department's longstanding work establishing how Section 504 and the ADA require online accessibility, including statements of interest filed jointly with the Department of Education in cases against Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The Justice Department's Coordination of Section 504's Consistent and Effective Implementation
Executive Order 12250 (EO 12250), issued in 1980, requires the department to ensure the consistent and effective implementation of Section 504 across federal agencies. The department regularly coordinates with over 35 federal agencies on Section 504 matters by:
Reviewing regulations and policy guidance addressing the implementation of Section 504 and working with agencies to ensure that the federal government speaks in one, consistent voice. Over the last year, the department reviewed more than a dozen Section 504 regulations and guidance documents from other federal agencies.
Expanding assistance to agencies through legal counsel on Section 504 enforcement matters, information sharing, training, targeted partnerships, technical assistance on data collection, interpretations of Section 50 and the development of written guidance. The department also regularly refers complaints of disability discrimination to the appropriate federal agencies. In the last year, the department referred over 4,500 complaints to other federal agencies.
Leading the Section 504 interagency working group where federal agencies share new developments and current enforcement practices for Section 504 and other nondiscrimination requirements.
On the Rehabilitation Act's 50th anniversary, the Justice Department celebrates this historic law and the vast and impactful work, past and future, to end disability discrimination and make society more accessible and equitable for all.
To learn more about Section 504 or the ADA, call the toll-free ADA Information Line at 1-800-514-0301 or 1-800-514-0383 (TDD), or access the department's ADA website at http://ada.gov.