Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Wheelchair users and other people with disabilities at a rally in San Francisco. They have signs that read "We shall overcome" and "Equal opportunity for all".

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or Section 504, can be considered the oldest federal disability civil rights law in the U.S. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in public and private programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. The law also covers programs and activities that are conducted by the federal government itself, including all federal agencies and the U.S. postal service. The law is notable for its breadth. It applies across disabilities and across industries or sectors, from ground transportation to education to health. The law is also brief, with a prohibition on discrimination that is barely over 70 words. In part, that is because each major federal agency was required to develop, promulgate, and enforce more detailed regulations that would apply to its own programs, as well as regulations governing any entity that receives federal financial assistance from the agency.

Most recently, in May 2016, this regulatory process was seen in action when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published civil rights regulations under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which explicitly applied federal civil rights laws, including Section 504, to the private health insurance marketplaces established under the ACA.

Section 504 is an important precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which emulated both the breadth of Section 504’s scope as well as its model of dividing regulatory and enforcement authority among different federal agencies. While Section 504 is perhaps the best-known section of the Rehabilitation Act with the widest applicability to people with disabilities, other sections of the Rehabilitation Act are also important.

  • Section 501 requires federal agencies of the executive branch to provide disability affirmative action and nondiscrimination in employment practices.
  • Section 503 requires the same employment practices from federal government contractors and subcontractors over a certain size.
  • Section 508 requires electronic and information technology that is developed, maintained, procured, or used by the federal government to be accessible to people with disabilities, including employees and members of the public.