The U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission came together to publish a disability resource guide, the EEOC announced Tuesday.
The release marks 50 years since the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. A precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Rehabilitation Act was the first major federal law to bridge the gap between people with disabilities and workforce participation.
The guide outlines for employers the role that the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and Office of Disability Employment Policy, as well as the EEOC, have in enforcing the act.
What does the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 do?
“Individuals with disabilities have long faced unnecessary barriers to employment. 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.”
Per the guide, the EEOC enforces Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act, which “prohibits federal agencies from discriminating against individuals with disabilities at work,” while the OFCCP enforces Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits such discrimination on the part of federal contractors and subcontractors. In turn, ODEP seeks to develop policies and practices to that improve the quality of opportunities for talent with disabilities.
Why is the Rehabilitation Act important for HR?
While the law is specific to those involved in federal work, the resource guide outlines best practices regarding hiring and supporting folks with disabilities.
For one, the guide nods to how the term “disability” can be an expansive one; likewise, the DOL makes note of highly stigmatized physical and mental conditions, using the term “targeted disabilities.” This includes blindness, deafness, epilepsy, “significant mobility impairments,” “significant psychiatric disorders,” and traumatic brain injury.
The guide also outlines the key elements of Section 501, which includes:
- Limiting disability-related questions that recruiters can ask job applicants or employees.
- Protecting potential and current hires from having to participate in medical exams.
- Prohibiting employers from retaliating against job applicants and employees who oppose Rehabilitation Act violations.
- Requiring that employers — absent undue hardship — provide reasonable accommodation for known physical or mental disabilities.
- Protecting people with disabilities from “disparate treatment” or harassment.
Additionally, Section 501 mandates that federal agencies give people with disabilities equal access and opportunities to apply for jobs; agencies must have sufficient staff to answer disability-related questions from job applicants, and to process reasonable accommodation requests in hiring.
Agencies must also have sufficient opportunities for talent with disabilities to advance within the agency. The DOL reminded HR professionals that they can provide resources that facilitate that equitable advancement, such as specialized training programs and anti-harassment education.
The guide also explains that Section 503 prohibits discrimination in the following areas of the talent cycle:
- Hiring, recruiting and job application procedures.
- Upgrading, promotions or awarding of tenure or seniority.
- Demotion, transfer, layoffs and termination.
- Right of return from layoffs and rehiring.
- Job assignments, classifications and organizational structures.
- Sick leave, leave of absence or any other leave.
- Selection and financial support for training (apprenticeships, conferences, professional meetings).
- Any other terms, conditions or privileges of employment.
And finally, the agencies list a host of resources for HR best practices regarding people with disabilities. Notably, ODEP runs the Workforce Recruitment Program, which was mainly created for federal contractors but is available to private sector employers.