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Rehabilitation Act of 1973

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One of the most important pieces of legislation during the 1970s was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 of this act, put in almost as an afterthought, made it illegal for any federal agency, public university, defense or other federal contractor, or any other institution that received federal funding to discriminate against anyone solely on the basis of disability. The language of Section 504 was the same as that of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the time, both the Nixon and administration and disability activists thought the Rehab Act was just a funding bill. No one debated Section 504, or seemed particularly concerned with civil rights protection.

Disability activists soon realized what had happened, as did the Ford Administration. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) estimated that compliance with Section 504 could cost billions of dollars. They stalled the issuance of the final regulations.

The new secretary of HEW in the Carter Administration, Joseph Califano, assigned a group of lawyers to rewrite the Section 504 regulations. Disability activists descended on Califano, holding a candlelight vigil before his house and asking him not to rewrite the regulations.

Four years after the law had been passed, Califano gave in to the protesters, signing the regulations without change. Unfortunately, there was a backlash to this legislation when people discovered that nondiscrimination policies sometimes cost money. As a result, Section 504 was eventually watered-down, especially by the Reagan Administration.

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