Author: David Wolowitz & Michael O'Connor, Prairie State Legal Services
Last updated: February 2013
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
What Is It? This law is usually just called "Section 504." It requires any recipient of federal funds, and any federal agency, to run its programs or activities so that they are readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities. It prohibits recipients of federal funds and federal agencies from excluding persons with disabilities from those programs or activities.
What Is Its Purpose? To make sure that federal agencies and any recipients of federal funds treat persons with disabilities equally compared to persons without disabilities. To make sure that persons with disabilities have access to and can use their programs and activities.
Who Can Be Helped by This Law? Only those who have a disability and who meet the eligibility requirements for the program or activity, either with or without a reasonable accommodation.
Relationship of 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to Title II of the ADA
In Section 1 of this Chapter, we explain how Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in state and local government services. Title II of the ADA applies to all services, programs, and activities provided by state and local government agencies, whether or not they receive federal funding.
In this section, we explain how 504 of the Rehabilitation Act also prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in state and local government programs and activities that receive federal funding. Section 504 does not apply to state or local government operations which do not receive federal funds. To the extent the ADA and 504 overlap, they are very similar in what they do to prohibit discrimination.
Another difference is that 504 applies to the programs and activities of federal agencies. The ADA does not apply to the federal government at all.
Access to Facilities, Programs and Activities
Any federal agency or recipient of federal funds, in conducting its "programs or activities," must run each program or activity in a certain way. Each program or activity, "when viewed in its entirety," must be readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities. If any such program is not accessible, the responsible federal agency or recipient has committed unlawful discrimination under 504.
The same rule applies to federal agencies in running their own programs and activities.
Section 504 applies both to federal agencies and to recipients of federal financial assistance.
For the definition and examples of "recipients" and "federal financial assistance," see the section of this Guidebook titled "Are You an "Otherwise Qualified Individual With a Disability" Under 504 of the Rehabilitation Act" in Chapter 1, General Considerations.
What Is Needed to Prove a Case of Discrimination under 504?
To make a case of discrimination under 504, you must show the following:
In order to make a case under 504, you must show that the federal grantee knew or should have known of your disability.
You do not have to prove that the recipient or the agency:
Are You "Otherwise Qualified"?
Section 504 prohibits discrimination against "an otherwise qualified" person with a disability. See the section of this Guidebook titled "Are You An Otherwise Qualified Individual With a Disability Under 504 of the Rehabilitation Act?" in Chapter 1, General Considerations.
Are You Being Discriminated Against Solely Because of Your Disability?
If you are an otherwise qualified individual with a disability, then 504 prohibits discrimination by a federal agency or grantee, but only if the discrimination was due "solely" to your disability. This means that you must show:
Requirement of Meaningful Access
You must be provided with "meaningful access" to the benefits of the program. In some cases, that means the agency or recipient may have to take positive steps to provide "reasonable accommodations" to make sure that access is meaningful.
An "accommodation" is any change in the environment of the program or activity, or in its rules, policies or practices, that makes access easier for a person with a disability.
Example: Residents of adult care facilities were denied meaningful access to state Medicaid services when they were denied transportation to doctors' offices.
However, no accommodation needs to be made where it would:
A Facility Must Be Accessible "When Viewed In Its Entirety"
Federal agencies and recipients must make sure that their "facilities" are accessible to you. It is a discriminatory practice if they are not accessible to you.
Example: All of the high schools in a school district have multiple architectural barriers. This violates the 504 rights of a student who uses a wheelchair and all school-age persons with physical disabilities who reside in the district.
The term "facility" means all or any part of a building or structure, or equipment, including the land where the building, structure, or equipment is located. It includes both indoor areas such as bathrooms and passageways and outdoor areas such as roads, walks, and parking lots.
A facility only needs to be accessible "when viewed in its entirety." This means that a person with a disability has a way to access all the benefits of the program or activity that a person without a disability can access. It does not mean:
There are different ways that a federal agency or recipient can make a facility accessible, "when viewed in its entirety." These include:
New Construction or alterations by Federal Agencies. Any new building (or part of a building) that is constructed must be designed and made in a way that makes it readily accessible to you and usable by you. The same is true for any existing facility that is altered. Such buildings are subject to the requirements and standards of the Architectural Barriers Act.
By Recipients of Federal Funds. Recipients also must design and construct new facilities to be readily accessible to you and usable by you. alterations to existing facilities must be designed and constructed to be readily accessible and usable by persons with disabilities to the maximum extent feasible. Small providers are not required by 504 to make significant structural alterations to their existing facilities for the purpose of assuring program accessibility, as long as they have other ways of making sure their services are available.
Most Integrated Setting Requirement
Recipients of federal assistance and federal agencies must run their programs and activities in the most "integrated setting" appropriate to the needs of persons with disabilities. This means making sure that persons with disabilities have the chance to participate in areas that are not separate or different.
This rule does not prohibit the creation of special programs under federal law that are just for persons with disabilities, or certain disabilities.
What a Federal Agency or Grantee Is Not Required to Do
There is no requirement that federal agencies or grantees do the following things:
You cannot automatically be excluded from jury duty just because you have a disability. That violates 504.
Example: A person who is blind may be equally qualified to serve on a jury.
Visual observation is not always essential to assess the credibility of a witness. A blind juror can hear the clearing of the throat or pausing to swallow, voice quavering or inaudibility due to stress. Those things permit a blind juror to make credibility assessments of witnesses just as well as sighted jurors. A person who is blind should be asked questions by the judge to see if he or she has the abilities to serve on a jury. In most cases a person who is blind will be able to competently serve as a juror if a "reasonable accommodation" is provided.
Example: A person with a visual impairment was qualified to serve as a juror where she could be seated close to the witness box, and have documents read into the record, and where she could have photographs described to her.
There may be cases in which it would be inappropriate for a blind person to serve as a juror. One example might be where there is a large amount of documentary evidence.
A person cannot be excluded from a jury solely on the ground that the person is deaf. If you are deaf, you must be given a meaningful opportunity to show that, with an interpreter, you have the necessary skills to judge credibility of witnesses and otherwise participate at a trial, without disrupting or delaying it.
Admission of Guide Dogs Accompanied by Blind Masters
Seeing-eye dogs or other guide dogs, especially trained and educated for that purpose, accompanied by their blind masters, must be admitted to any building or other property owned or controlled by the United States. Such dogs cannot be permitted to run free or roam in or on such property. They must be in guiding harness or on leash and under the control of their blind masters at all times.
Your rights have been violated if: You are an "otherwise qualified individual with a disability"; you are in a program or activity which receives federal financial assistance, or which is run by a federal agency, AND solely because of your disability:
•A federal agency or recipient has failed to provide you with a reasonable accommodation necessary to provide you with meaningful access.
- A federal agency or recipient runs a program or activity which is not readily accessible to you or which is not usable by you.
•A federal agency or recipient fails to run its programs or activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to your needs.
You are automatically excluded from jury duty without being given a chance to show that you have the necessary skills to properly participate in the judicial process.
•New buildings or alterations to buildings are constructed in a way that is not readily accessible to you or usable by you.
•A federal agency or recipient has facilities, when viewed in their entirety, which are not readily accessible to you or not usable by you.
If a federal agency or recipient of federal funds has violated your rights under 504 to access any of their programs: You must be careful to take the proper steps to preserve and enforce your rights. Please see the section of this Guidebook titled " How to Protect or Enforce Your Rights Under 504 of the Rehabilitation Act" in Chapter 1.
Note: If you were discriminated against in a program or activity of a state or local government recipient of federal funds, you probably also were discriminated against under Title II of the ADA. Please see the section in this Chapter titled "State and Local Government Services."
Statutes and Regulations
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act can be found at 29 U.S.C. § 794.The statute regarding admission of guide dogs to federal buildings can be found at 40 U.S.C. § 291.
The Architectural Barriers Act can be found at 42 U.S.C.§§ 4151-4157.
The general regulations for 504 can be found at 28 CFR Part 41.
Each agency that funds recipients with federal financial assistance has its own set of regulations. Those regulations concern complaints for violations of 504. Those agencies, and their regulations can be found in the section of this Guidebook titled "How to Protect or Enforce Your Rights Under 504 of the Rehabilitation Act" in Chapter 1.
A typical set of agency regulations are those for the Department of Justice. The regulations for enforcement of nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities conducted by the Department of Justice can be found at 28 CFR Part 39.
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