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Section 504, 30 years old, still protects rights
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Sept. 30, 2003 -- Thirty years ago last Friday, Pres. Richard Nixon signed the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. Although it was basically a benefits law, the very last sentence of that Act, Section 504, was different.

It read, "No otherwise qualified handicapped individual, shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Historians of the law say that it was added as almost an afterthought; inserted by a Congressional staffer who thought the law, in the 1970s civil rights era, ought to have a nondiscrimination component.

It was the first federal law that forbade discrimination against people with disabilities. But it pertained only to programs getting "federal financial assistance." Its regulations were finalized four years later and only after a lawsuit. Yet those regulations would become the basis for drafting the broader federal bill that became the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Most people today think of the ADA when they think of civil rights protections for people with disabilities. Yet Section 504 is still being used successfully to guarantee nondiscriminatory treatment. It is often used in post-secondary educational settings, to force colleges and universities, virtually all of whom receive federal funds, to provide access and accommodation. An overview of how Sect 504 can protect the rights of students with disabilities in post-secondary education can be found at

Earlier this year, the National Council on Disability issued a report on federal enforcement of Section 504 in the Departments of Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, State and Justice. "While the Federal Government has consistently asserted its strong support for the civil rights of people with disabilities," said NCD Chair Lex Frieden, "the federal agencies charged with enforcement and policy development under Section 504 have, to varying degrees, lacked any coherent and unifying national leadership, coordination, accountability, and funding." Read the report at

James Cherry, a law student at the time, filed the lawsuit that became known as Cherry v. Matthews and forced the issuance of Section 504 regulations in 1977. Read Cherry's article about how he came to file the lawsuit at

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