Examining 50 Years of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Section 501

Rehabilitation Act, 50 Years. Advancing Access and Equity-Then, Now and Next

This year marks 50 years since the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a major achievement in our ongoing quest to advance access and equity for people with disabilities. To mark this milestone, Office of Disability Employment Policy Chief of Staff Anupa Iyer Geevarghese recently spoke with Associate Director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Office of Federal Operations Dexter Brooks and former EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum about Section 501 of the Rehab Act and how it has improved the lives of those with disabilities.

Chai, to start, please tell us what Section 501 is and how it came to be included in the Rehab Act? 
Section 501 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in federal employment. It also requires federal agencies to take affirmative action to employ people with disabilities. It’s one of several sections that make up the Rehab Act’s Title V. The Act reauthorized the nation’s vocational rehabilitation program, which had been in place for more than half a century. But it wasn’t until 1973 that a right to nondiscrimination in employment was addressed in any of the reauthorizations, and the affirmative action requirements in Section 501—and Section 503, which covers Federal Contractors—further recognized that it simply wasn’t enough to provide people with services to prepare for employment. We needed employers to hire them. Section 501 created that expectation on the part of federal agencies.

Chai, we know that significant updates to Section 501 went into effect in January 2017, while you were EEOC Commissioner and I also worked at the agency. Can you give us a summary of those updates, and the reasoning for making them? 
For decades, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission collected information from agencies on how they were doing and provided technical assistance to help them improve. But more needed to be done. We needed expectations set forth in a regulation, not just guidance and directives. Section 501 was enacted in 1973, but before 2017 the only regulation the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had issued comprised a few paragraphs basically repeating the words of the law. That changed significantly in 2017. First, the new regulations set tangible targets for agencies to meet. Second, the new regulations make clear to federal agencies that they must focus on people who face the most barriers to employment. They specify these targeted disabilities and establish a separate subgoal for people with them. Finally, the new regulations make it easier for people who need personal assistance services to be hired by the Federal Government.

Dexter, what is the EEOC’s role in enforcing Section 501? How does Section 501 integrate into EEOC’s overall mission? 
Section 501 clearly reflects our mission because it’s about ensuring equal opportunity. In this case, for people with disabilities and specifically related to employment with the Federal Government. Regarding enforcement, Section 501’s statutory language mandates that federal agencies submit to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for approval an annually updated affirmative action program plan for the hiring, placement and advancement of individuals with disabilities. We implement this mandate through Management Directive 715 (MD-715). It’s important to note that agencies’ annual reviews must specifically address steps they will take to improve. 

Dexter, since the 2017 updates, how has the EEOC worked to ensure their effective implementation? 
We have spent the years since reviewing agencies’ Section 501 plans and providing assistance to support their efforts. In addition to directing us to review, evaluate and approve agencies’ plans, Section 501 specifically says the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is responsible for “providing technical assistance and training to agencies.” So, we—specifically those of us in our Office of Federal Operations—have been doing exactly that to help agencies eliminate or reduce identified barriers to employment for people with disabilities. We do this in close partnership with other agencies, among them the Office of Disability Employment Policy and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.  

Dexter, as you know, in June 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 14035—Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce. How do Section 501 and this Executive Order support each other? 
That Executive Order specifies, among other things, that the Federal Government must be a model employer of people with disabilities, providing equal employment opportunities and taking affirmative action to comply with applicable laws, including but not limited to Section 501. In essence, the Executive Order directs agencies strengthen their efforts to implement Section 501 and deliver on its inherent promise to make the federal workforce one that reflects the diversity of those it serves.

Dexter, the theme of the Rehab Act anniversary is “Increasing Access and Equity—Then, Now and Next.” With that in mind, how do you believe Section 501 has helped advance access and equity, and how will it do so in the future? 
To address the “then,” the clear intent of Section 501 was to improve employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities, and that was an important first step. As for the “now,” we at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are working hard to ensure the 2017 updates strengthen its ability to do so. In the first four years, we saw a 9% increase in the population of employees with disabilities in the Federal Government, and the population identified as employees with targeted disabilities increased by 81%. As for the “next,” Section 501 will continue to allow us to explore and lead on efforts to remove barriers for people with disabilities and serve as a model for all employers, both public and private. 

Chai, to close, what are your thoughts on Section 501’s continued role in increasing access and equity?
Section 501, particularly now, with the tangible weight of the 2017 regulatory updates, continues to be powerful. Substantively, it requires federal agencies to pay attention to this issue. Of course, attention is the lowest bar. But it is the foundation on which progress can be built. From there, agencies can explore effective strategies. They can find out what works and what doesn’t. In short, Section 501 provides a structure for agencies to advance disability access and equity. But it also sends a symbolic message. It makes it clear that access and equity are civil rights. What’s more, as Dexter said, Section 501 helps ensure the federal workforce reflects those it serves. Finally, for me personally, as someone with the disability of anxiety disorder who has been “out” about that disability during my professional career, Section 501 reinforces a work culture that reduces stigma for people with disabilities. I am very grateful for that.

Anupa Iyer Geevarghese is the Chief of Staff for the Office of Disability Employment Policy