The Rehabilitation Act Section 504
The Rehabilitation Act is the cornerstone of disability rights legislation. The purpose of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is to empower individuals with disabilities to gain employment, economic self-sufficiency, independence, inclusion, and integration into society. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was designed to ensure that any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance does not discriminate on the basis of disability for otherwise qualified persons. Section 504 also specifies that colleges and universities may not limit the number of students with disabilities admitted or make pre-admission inquiries as to whether or not an applicant has a disability. In addition, post secondary institutions cannot use admission tests or other criteria that inadequately measure the academic qualifications of students with disabilities because special provisions to take the tests were not made, exclude a qualified student with a disability from any course of study, or establish rules and policies that may adversely affect students with disabilities. In all cases, postsecondary institutions have a responsibility to provide program access to qualified students with disabilities.
Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 and many of the provisions of Section 504 were extended to public and private companies who do not receive federal funding. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires that people with disabilities be provided equal access to public programs and services. According to this law, no otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities shall, solely by reason of their disabilities, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in these programs. The ADA upholds and extends the standards for compliance set forth in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to employment practices, communications, and all policies, procedures, and practices that impact the treatment of individuals with disabilities. Making a service or program accessible is the responsibility of the service or program. Access, however, extends past the classroom to all programs and services made available to the public, such as athletic programs and extracurricular offerings. The ADA requires more than simple physical accessibility (elevators in buildings, reserved spaces in parking lots, and lifts on busses). ADA accessibility requirements also apply to programs offered on the Internet. As the United States Department of Justice clarifies ("ADA Accessibility," 1997), " Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well." At the postsecondary level, Web sites which need to be used by students or the public, and software needed for coursework must be accessible to individuals using adaptive technology. For example, a blind student using a screen reader and voice synthesizer must be assured access to the content of college Web pages.
To ensure that the federal government would not perpetuate the discrimination that the vocational rehabilitation system was designed to mitigate, Congress enacted civil rights protections for people with disabilities. On August 7, 1998, Congress amended Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (19 U.S.C. 794d) to expand the federal government's responsibility to provide electronic and information technology which is accessible to, and usable by, people with disabilities. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act specifically covers federal agencies but has an impact on the greater public. Section 508 requires Federal departments or agencies that develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology, to ensure that the electronic and information technology is accessible. Section 508 requires that individuals with disabilities seeking information or services from a Federal department or agency, have access to, and use of, information and data comparable to that provided to individuals without disabilities. For example, the U.S. Department of Education, the IRS, and other government Web sites must provide access for blind users who use speech output systems. If any video clips are used they must have captions and descriptions. Visual images should also be audio-described so that people who are blind or deaf have equal access.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 also lays out accessibility requirements and standards. As more and more educational opportunities require technology, telecommunications, and computers, the accessibility issues continue to change. Where a ramp or interpreter was once sufficient, now "electronic curb cuts" and adaptive technology are necessary. The Act includes regulatory reform and effects on other laws including the need for Internet and Web site accessibility standards, as well as captioning and audio description of video, and access to telephone services. For example, in postsecondary education, individuals with disabilities who are taking distance education courses must be provided with accessible materials through printed, phone, Internet, or televised methods. New telephone technologies, video and multimedia formats must be made accessible to users that are deaf.