Federal Agency Finalizes Rule For Disability Protections In Historic Move

The Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday finalized a rule to bolster disability protections outlined in federal law and address issues that disabled people have faced for decades, even after the protections were originally established.

The rule updates Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The federal legislation, passed in 1973 and championed by disability rights activists, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in any program or activity that receives federal funding or is conducted by a federal agency. This includes programs in elementary and secondary schools, nursing homes and hospitals.

The update aims to strengthen civil rights protections in health care and social services for disabled people by clarifying obligations for nondiscriminatory treatment that were not stated in the original regulation.

HHS said that the rule “addresses discrimination in medical treatment, adds enforceable standards for accessible medical diagnostic equipment, and ensures accessible web content and mobile apps.”

“It is comprehensive in scope, advancing justice for people with disabilities,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement, adding that the update “furthers the Department’s commitment to ensuring equal access to this nation’s health care system and its social service programs.”

Though Section 504 had sought to ensure equal access for the country’s tens of millions of disabled people, discrimination and inadequate treatment have remained a reality for many.

“The COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on the discrimination that too many people with disabilities continue to face, from denial of medical treatment due to ableism, to inaccessible medical equipment and websites, to having no choice but to receive services in institutional settings,” said Alison Barkoff, the head of the government’s Administration for Community Living, when the update was proposed last year.

According to HHS, the rule seeks to ensure that Section 504 is interpreted similarly to other legislation offering disability protections, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Affordable Care Act.

“Today’s rule is long overdue,” said Melanie Fontes Rainer, the director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights. “My office heard from thousands in overwhelming support of this rule and the need to update this rule now for people with disabilities.”

Mia Ives-Rublee of the Center for American Progress described the rule as “a major step toward gaining greater equity for disabled people across the United States.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who has long advocated for improvements to health care access for disabled people, also lauded the update to Section 504.

“The unjust status quo has subjected our neighbors with disabilities to daily injustices,” Pressley said Thursday. “This much-needed and long-overdue rule is a historic step forward that will help prevent discrimination for folks with disabilities and help them access healthcare and other services they need and deserve.”