Significant U.S. laws impacting inclusive employment opportunities and practices for individuals with disabilities are highlighted here. These laws protect the rights of all Americans, regardless of disability, to receive equal consideration, benefits packages, and necessary accommodations in employment ventures. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) 

The Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA)

The Rehabilitation Act 

President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act on the South Lawn of the White House
President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act on the South Lawn of the White House.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the signature disability rights law of the United States and the model for subsequent legislation in other countries, as well as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Passed in 1990, the ADA prohibits discrimination and establishes equal rights for individuals with disabilities to participate in all aspects of everyday life, including employment. Key highlights of the ADA follow.

Defining a Person with a Disability under the ADA

The ADA includes a basic three-part definition of disability:

  • Disability. — The term ‘disability’ means, with respect to an individual–
  • a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual;
  • a record of such an impairment; or
  • being regarded as having such an impairment.

The word impairment is defined as being:

  • Any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more body systems, such as neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, immune, circulatory, hemic, lymphatic, skin, and endocrine; or
  • Any mental or psychological disorder, such as an intellectual disability (formerly termed “mental retardation”), organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.

An impairment is a disability if it substantially limits the ability of an individual to perform a major life activity in comparison to most people in the general population.

Contents of the ADA

The ADA is divided into five titles that address the following issues:

Title I: Employment

Title II: Public Services

Title III: Public Accommodations

Title IV: Telecommunications

Title V: Miscellaneous Provisions

ADA and Employment

The protections that the ADA provides for people with disabilities pertaining to employment can predominantly be found in Title I and Title II. Title I outlaws covered employers from discriminating on the basis of disability in all employment- related activities: hiring, pay, benefits, promotions. ‘Covered Employers’ include private businesses, educational institutions, employment agencies, labor organizations, and state and local government sects with 15 or more employees. Title II prohibits all state and local government sectors, regardless of how many people they employ or whether or not they are deferral financial assistance recipients, from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in employment opportunities.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA)

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was instituted by the Department of Labor (DOL) in coordination with the United States Department of Education (ED) and Health and Human Services (HHS) in 2014. This public law replaced the previous Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998. It is designed to strengthen and improve the nation’s public workforce system and assist in getting Americans, including individuals with barriers to employment such as disability, into high quality jobs and carriers and to help employers hire and retain skilled and diverse workers.

Among many others, the highlights of WIOA reforms include: requiring states to strategically align workforce development programs, promoting accountability and transparency, fostering regional collaboration, improving the American Job Center (AJC) System, improving services to employers and promoting work-based training, providing access to high quality training, enhancing workforce services for the unemployed and other job seekers, improving services to individuals with disabilities, making key investments in serving disconnected youth and other vulnerable populations, enhancing the job corps program, and streamlining and strengthening the strategic roles of workforce development boards.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) consists of five titles:

Title I- Workforce Development Activities

  • authorizes job training and related services to unemployed or underemployed individuals, including those with disabilities, and establishes the governance and performance accountability system for WIOA.

Title II- Adult Education and Literacy

  • authorizes education services to assist adults in improving their basic skills, completing secondary education, and transitioning to postsecondary education.

Title III- Amendments to the Wagner-Peyser Act

  • amends the Wagner-Peyser Act of 1933 to integrate the U.S. Employment Service (ES) into the One-Stop system authorized by WIOA.

Title IV- Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

  • authorizes employment-related vocational rehabilitation services to individuals with disabilities, to integrate vocational rehabilitation into the One-Stop system.

Title V- General Provisions

  • includes the specifics of transition provisions from WIA to WIOA.

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The Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA)

Disability rights in the US have long shared some connection with the rights of veterans.  The Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA) was passed in 1974 and was created for the purpose of providing assistance to returning Vietnam veterans, perhaps most notably protecting them from employment discrimination. VEVRAA sets a precedent for how the United States must treat disabled veterans and, along with the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) which was passed in 1994 and amended in 2005, stands as one of two key federal laws prohibiting discrimination against returning veterans on the basis of injury and disability status. Employers who are federal contractors or subcontractors must comply with VEVRAA.

Which employers have obligations under the new VEVRAA Final Rules?

Enforced by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), the new VEVRAA Final Rules impact employers who have federal contracts or subcontracts of $100,000 or more.

Which veterans have rights under the new VEVRAA Final Rules?

Contrary to its name, VEVRAA regulations extend to cover and advocate for far more than just Vietnam veterans. Other categories of veterans whose employment rights are protected under VEVRAA include: those who are ‘entitled to compensation… under laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs” or “those who were released from active duty because of service related disability,” recently separated veterans, active duty wartime or campaign veterans, campaign badge veterans, armed forces service medal veterans.

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The Rehabilitation Act

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a U.S. federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in:

  • Federal employment;
  • Programs that are run by federal agencies;
  • Programs that receive financial assistance from the federal government;
  • Employment practices of federal contractors.

The Rehabilitation Act is split into multiple sections that address different aspects of discrimination against people with disabilities. The most noteworthy sections include:

Section 501: This section bans employers within the federal government from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Federal government officials are also required to take affirmative action to hire individuals with disabilities.

Section 503: This section bans discrimination by employers more broadly and requires that contractors who work for the federal government also take affirmative action to hire workers with disabilities. Over time, the terms of required affirmative action under Section 503 have evolved with an approval of new regulations by the federal government, which has set a current goal of having federal contractors whose workforce has at least 7% individuals with disabilities.

Section 504: This section prohibits federal agencies and programs that receive financial assistance from the federal government from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities. This section is particularly relevant to education for people with disabilities since public school districts, institutions of higher education, and other state and local education agencies all receive federal financial assistance. Section 504 requires that every school district provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to any qualified student with a disability who lives within their jurisdiction. This applies regardless of the nature of severity of a student’s disability. Section 504 is therefore critical to facilitating inclusive education in the United States, as it mandates that no qualified individual with  disabilities be excluded from participating in education programs that receive federal financial assistance.

Section 508: This section requires that federal electronic and information technology should be accessible to people with disabilities. In this context, accessible technology does rely on one sense or the ability of the user and can be operated multiple ways, allowing individuals with disabilities to use it without being constrained by their circumstances.

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Photo credit:  George Bush Presidential Library and Museum