On the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the U.S. Department of Labor released a resource guide to help companies better understand the recruitment, hiring and employment of individuals with disabilities.
The guide, published on Sept. 26, has important information about the Rehabilitation Act for employees and employers in the federal sector, including federal contractors; where to turn for help; examples of best practices; links to relevant agency publications; and additional resources.
"The Rehabilitation Act helps ensure meaningful access and inclusion for qualified individuals with disabilities in the federal workforce," EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows said in a statement. "As we recognize the Act's 50th anniversary by providing this helpful resource, the EEOC renews our commitment to enforcing this ground-breaking and vital disability rights law."
The passage of the Rehabilitation Act laid the groundwork for advancing inclusion, equity and access for people with disabilities in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment and in employment practices of federal contractors.
It was the first federal law to prohibit discrimination due to a disability.
"The [Rehabilitation] Act paved the way—and provided a model—for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which extended anti-discrimination protections beyond the federal government, and other federal laws and actions to guarantee the rights of people with disabilities," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement.
Sean Libby, an attorney of labor and employment at Elarbee, Thompson, Sapp & Wilson LLP in Atlanta, said the resource guide is a great starting point for employers, particularly HR professionals who want to learn more about Rehabilitation Act compliance.
"While much of the resource guide simply is background information on the Act, it does include best practices and links to many additional helpful resources," Libby said. "For example, the guide links to the Workforce Recruitment Program website, which could assist employers, government and private, in finding new talent for their organizations while also supporting those with disabilities."
The guide comes as the Department of Health and Human Services announced plans to enhance efforts to prevent disability-based discrimination in health care. While the percentage of employed people with disabilities rose in 2022, the unemployment rate for this group was still twice as high as it was for people without a disability.
[SHRM Resources and Tools: What You Need to Know About the Americans with Disabilities Act]
Disability Discrimination: An Ongoing Problem
Disability harassment and discrimination continues to run rampant in workplaces. According to federal data, disability-related lawsuits represented 34 percent of all charges submitted to the EEOC in fiscal year 2022—a higher percentage than that of religious, sexual or racial discrimination charges.
Recent EEOC lawsuits for disability discrimination have included:
- In September 2023, United Parcel Service, more commonly known as UPS, was sued for allegedly maintaining a discriminatory policy of refusing to hire or reasonably accommodate deaf or hearing-impaired individuals for driver positions of vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds, even when the Department of Transportation had authorized the practice.
- Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Georgia Inc. agreed to pay $130,000 in October 2021 after an employee, whose disabilities made it traumatic for her to access her workplace through revolving doors, had requested to use the available nonrevolving doors as a reasonable accommodation. Kaiser allegedly refused and forced the employee to use the revolving doors.
- Circle K agreed to pay $8 million in November 2021 after allegedly failing to provide reasonable accommodations to and retaliating against a group of workers with disabilities and pregnant employees.
Libby offered several recommendations for companies to avoid litigation, which should include reviewing their accommodation procedures periodically based on relevant executive orders and EEOC guidance, partnering with employees to determine when accommodations are needed, documenting the accommodation process, and partnering with legal counsel before determining that an accommodation is not reasonable.
"Disability discrimination and harassment continues to be an area of significant action in the employment law space," he added. "Anecdotally, we've seen an uptick in disability-related litigation as employees increasingly return to the workplace, and I would expect that trend to continue."