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The Rehabilitation Act of 1973


The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is the federal legislation that authorizes a nationwide service system to assist persons with disabilities to attain employment, independent living and an improved quality of life.

The Act authorizes the grant programs of vocational rehabilitation, supported employment, independent living, and client assistance. It also authorizes discretionary training and service grants administered by the Rehabilitation Services Administration. The Act authorizes research activities that are administered by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the work of the National Council on Disability. It also includes a variety of provisions focused on rights, advocacy and protections for individuals with disabilities (U.S. DOE,

The Act was established to empower individuals with disabilities to maximize employment, economic self-sufficiency, inclusion and integration into society. For vocational rehabilitation programs, the Act defines an "individual with a disability" as any person who:

  • has a physical or metal impairment which results in a substantial impediment to employment, and
  • can benefit from vocational rehabilitation services in terms of an employment outcome.

For other programs, the Act defines an "individual with a disability" as any person who:

  • has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person's major life activities,
  • has a record of such impairment, or
  • is regarded as having such an impairment.

This latter definition for an "individual with a disability" is comparable to the definition provided by the American with Disabilities Act. 

The Act established an independent policy and advocacy group:

  • National Council on Disability

as well as several groups within the federal government:

  • Interagency Disability Coordinating Council
  • Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board
  • Interagency Committee on Employees who are Individuals with Disabilities

and several groups within the U.S. Department of Education:

  • Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA)
  • Rehabilitation Research Advisory Council
  • National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research

Since 1973, Congress has amended the Act several times. The 1992 amendments focused on ensuring consumer choice in career opportunities. The Act was reauthorized under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 to  streamline services, empower individual participants, provide state and local flexibility, and promote increased accountability in jobs programs.

Currently, the Act mandates that vocational rehabilitation (VR) coordinate with the state education agency (SEA) to provide transition planning to students with disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) also directs VR and the SEA to coordinate transition services for students with disabilities. VR collaborates with the SEA, various LEAs (local education agencies), and institutions of higher education at both the national and state level to provide services to transition-age youth while they are still in secondary education.  Though Title I of the Rehabilitation Act does not provide a statutory age requirement for VR services,  it does charge VR  with providing vocational rehabilitation services. The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) and RSA implement the law with respect to transition from postsecondary school to work..

Federal and state VR programs provide direct services to transition-age youth and adults with disabilities. VR programs also collaborate with multiple federal and state partners to implement comprehensive transition programs for various individuals served through special education, workforce development, mental health, developmental disability, and other service delivery systems. For example, the U.S. Department of Education’s Monitoring Redesign Initiative promotes the transition of students from school to postsecondary training, education and employment within state-operated VR programs.

The Rehabilitation Act identifies  VR services found in an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE) as those services necessary to assist an individual with a disability in preparing for, securing, retaining, or regaining employment.  The employment goal identified in the IPE should be consistent with the strengths, resources, priorities, concerns, abilities, capabilities, interests, and informed choice of the individual with a disability. VR services in the IPE may include  assessments needed to determine VR eligibility, counseling and guidance, service referrals, job-related services, vocational and other training services, corrective surgery and hospitalization, therapeutic treatments, mental and emotional treatments,  prosthetics, transportation, on-the-job or personal assistance services, interpreter services, supported employment, rehabilitation technology, self-employment, and transition services. Both the Act and IDEA allow for state agencies to establish parameters to guide the participation of vocational rehabilitation counselors in the Individual Educational Plan (IEP) transition planning process in schools.

See also "Division of Vocational Rehabilitation" and "Vocational Rehabilitation Services" in the A-Z Library of Terms and Resources.

References & Resources

Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board
This board, more commonly known as the Access Board, develops and maintains design criteria for buildings, vehicles, telecommunications equipment, and electronic and information technology. It also provides technical assistance, training, and enforcement for accessibility standards that cover federally funded facilities.

National Council on Disability (NCD)
NCD is an independent federal agency that promotes policies, programs, practices, and procedures that guarantee equal opportunity for all individuals with disabilities and empower individuals with disabilities to achieve economic self-sufficiency, independent living, and inclusion and integration into all aspects of society.

National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR)
NIDRR provides leadership and support for a comprehensive program of research related to the rehabilitation of individuals with disabilities with the aim of improving the lives of individuals with disabilities from birth through adulthood.

The Rehabilitation Act
The Rehabilitation Act authorizes vocational rehabilitation, supported employment, independent living, and client assistance programs as well as discretionary grants administered by the Rehabilitation Services Administration, research activities administered by NIDRR, and the work of NCD. The Act also contains rights, advocacy, and protections for individuals with disabilities.

Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA)
RSA oversees grant programs that help individuals with physical or mental disabilities obtain employment and live more independently through the provision of supports such as counseling, medical and psychological services, job training, and other individualized services.

Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998
The WIA consolidates, coordinates, and improves employment, training, literacy, and vocational rehabilitation programs in the United States. Titles I, II, III, and V address workforce investment systems for youth and adults, adult education and literacy, and related activities. Title IV contains the Rehabilitation Act amendments.    




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