Hiring Employees With Disabilities: Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act


Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act lays out a variety of rules for companies that hold contracts or subcontracts with the federal government. These rules dictate that the companies must take affirmative steps towards hiring individuals with disabilities (IWDs). The section is part of the larger Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the goal of which is to prevent discrimination based on disability. If a federal contractor or subcontractor doesn’t understand Section 503, the consequences of their hiring practices could prove costly.

What Is Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act?

Even a cursory understanding of Section 503 makes it obvious that employment discrimination towards people with disabilities is prohibited. That being said, it’s also important for federal contractors to recognize all of the less obvious nuances to the rules. One of the most important things to realize is that Section 503 has undergone changes over the years, so reading the original text simply isn’t enough.

Since its inception in 1973, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act has applied to contractors and subcontractors with the federal government. Currently, only companies with contracts in excess of $10,000 or those with indefinite quantities fall under these regulations. As of 2014, though, these rules have been updated to increase protections for individuals with disabilities.

One of the biggest updates to this section involves recruiting practices. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs stated that employers should have a “utilization goal” of 7 percent. This means IWDs should make up at least 7 percent of each employee group. The updated rules also increase transparency and incorporate new rules based on the equal opportunity clause and ADA Amendments Act.

As a federal contractor or subcontractor, you need to take this all into account when considering recruiting, hiring and accommodations.

Discussing Disabilities During the Hiring Process

Some contractors think that Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits them from discussing disabilities with applicants. This is far from the case. In fact, the new rules actually state that employers must “invite applicants to self-identify as IWDs at both the pre-offer and post-offer phases of the application process.” Additionally, you must invite workers to do the same every five years.

The Department of Labor provides a form with the specific language that must be used when asking employees to self-identify. Keep in mind, though, that they’re not required to do this. If an employee chooses to disclose at any point during the hiring process, it’s okay to ask how they plan on meeting the job requirements if their disability may interfere.

Never forget, though, that you must provide reasonable accommodations, treat the disclosure confidentially, and provide information about your hiring practices if asked to.

What Are Section 503 Reasonable Accommodations?

If an employee discloses a physical or mental disability during the hiring process, you are required by Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide reasonable accommodations. Keep in mind, though, that this is only for qualified individuals, and only if it doesn’t create an undue hardship. Reasonable accommodations can include – but aren’t limited to – the following:

  • Modifying existing facilities (i.e. adding computer screen magnifiers or adjusting desk height)

  • Using a sign language interpreter

  • Allowing for additional time off, within reason, for medical purposes

  • Modifying application processes so a qualified applicant isn’t disadvantaged

If you fail to follow the regulations set forth by Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, you could end up providing compensation to the individual you’re accused of discriminating against. Additionally, you may lose your federal contract, and since 19 percent of small business federal contractors’ revenue comes from these contracts, it could have a significant impact on your company.

Furthermore, all information about accommodation requests must be kept on record at your company so they can be easily exportable in the event of an audit by OFCCP. Accommodate is Symplicity’s solution for efficiently managing this while giving employees an outlet to submit accommodations requests. For more information on accommodations case tracking, please review our white paper: Understanding the Changes to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act: How Federal Contractors Remain Compliant

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