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A Summary of Major Federal Disability Programs

Both the United States and Canada have undertaken important initiatives to guarantee the rights of people who are blind or visually impaired or have other disabilities. In the United States, the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted and signed into law in 1990, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations and commercial facilities, and transportation. Chief among additional laws relating to the rights of and supports for people who are blind or visually impaired are the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Significant legal protections and services are also provided through the Telecommunications Amendments of 1996, the Air Carrier Access Act, and the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act, including the Help America Vote Act.

In addition, health and income support for eligible persons who are blind or visually impaired is provided through Medicare, Medicaid, and the Social Security Act's Disability Insurance Income and Supplemental Security Income programs. Specific information on these health and income security programs can be found at www.disability.gov, the access portal to the information on all federal programs for persons with disabilities.

In Canada, federal, provincial, and territorial governments implement a system of rights, benefits, and services for people with mental and physical disabilities including blindness. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides protection against discrimination based on physical and mental disability. Through this legislation and through a framework titled In Unison: A Canadian Approach to Disability Issues, produced as a collaborative effort by these entities, provincial and territorial governments work to ensure current rights and future reform.

The following summary provides a broad outline of rights and services under these laws and indicates sources for further information.


Key U.S. Programs and Legislation

The basic principles of policy related to disability in the United States are contained in legislation that focuses on three key areas: civil rights, rehabilitation and employment, and education. The legislation implementing these policies, in combination with Medicare and Medicaid and the Supplemental Security Income Program (the Social Security Act's disability insurance program), provide the basis for the inclusion of people who are blind or visually impaired in the mainstream of this country's social, political, and economic life. For more information about the services offered under this legislation, see "An Overview of Services."

Americans with Disabilities Act

The landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (P.L. 101-336) of 1990 provides a clear national mandate for the elimination of discrimination on the basis of disability in employment (Title I), state and local government (Title II), public transportation (Title II), public accommodations (Title III), and telecommunications relay services for individuals with hearing impairments and speech impairments (Title IV).

The ADA does not specifically list all the impairments that are covered by its provisions. An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities, a person who has a history or record of such impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having an impairment. In brief, the law stipulates that people who are blind or visually impaired must have the same fair chance for consideration for employment as any other applicant at a workplace covered by the act, provided that they can perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. The ADA also mandates that a fair chance be given to employees for consideration for promotion and training by the employer once they are employed. State and local governments cannot, on the basis of a person's disability, exclude individuals from participation in government services or programs. In places of public accommodation such as a motel, restaurant, movie theater, or doctor's office, provision must be made for a means of effective communication with and for recipient of services for the customer who is disabled. (Of Consuming Interest: A Guide to Titles II and III of the ADA for People with Vision Loss, prepared by Governmental Relations of the American Foundation for the Blind, and available at www.afb.org, provides a comprehensive guide to the services required under these titles for people who are blind or visually impaired.)

For additional information about the ADA, such as specific rights and remedies, assistance in filing claims, or meeting requirements under ADA, contact the following agencies (see full listings under "Federal Agencies" in the United States):

Employment (Title I)

State and Local Government Activities (Title II)

Public Transportation (Title II)

Public Accommodations (Title III)

Telecommunications Relay Services (Title IV)

In addition, the web area found at www.disabilityinfo.gov provides a gateway to the federal government’s disability-related information and resources. This interagency web portal was created to provide a gateway to comprehensive listings of assistance including the areas of employment, education, housing, transportation, health, income support, technology, independent living, and civil rights. Specific program information is available, along with information on eligibility qualifications and applications.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The authority for training and finding employment for people with mental, physical, and sensory disabilities is provided by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended (P.L. 105-220). The Rehabilitation Act is also linked to the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-220). This link is designed to afford individuals with access to the workforce one-stop employment and training system for persons with disabilities. The basic employment and training services covered under the Rehabilitation Act are provided through a state-federal partnership with agencies designated by each state to provide these services.

In many states, services for individuals who are blind or visually impaired are offered through a separate state vocational rehabilitation agency for persons who are blind or visually impaired. In other states, services are provided through a general vocational rehabilitation agency. Regardless of the nature of the designated agency, the Rehabilitation Act is the only national program for individuals other than veterans program that provides distinct prevocational training like orientation and mobility (O&M) and training in appropriate information access like the use of braille and assistive technology. Also unique to the Rehabilitation Act is the Title VII, Chapter 2, Independent Living for Older Individuals Who Are Blind program. In addition, the act provides the authority for long-term training programs for rehabilitation teachers and O&M instructors who provide independent living and mobility skills to persons who are blind or visually impaired.

One of the most significant recent additions to the authorities of the Rehabilitation Act is Section 508, which establishes requirements for electronic information technology developed, procured, or used by the federal government. This section requires federal electronic and information technology to be accessible to people with disabilities who are federal employees and members of the public seeking federal services. Section 508 requirements also apply to the U.S. Postal Service. Further specific information regarding Section 508 may be found at www.section508.gov. Information on filing complaints may be obtained from each federal department or agency.

Key elements of the Rehabilitation Act undergird the civil rights of individuals with disabilities in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment, and in the employment practices of federal contractors. Section 501 requires affirmative action and nondiscrimination in employment by federal agencies of the executive branch. Specific information and instructions on how to file complaints may be obtained through each agency's Equal Employment Opportunity Office. In addition, Section 503 requires affirmative action and prohibits employment discrimination by federal government contractors and subcontractors with contracts of more than $10,000. Specific information on Section 503 may be found at www.dol.gov/dol/compliance/comp-rehab.htm.

Section 504 provides that "no qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity that either receives federal financial assistance or is conducted by any Executive agency or the U.S. Postal Service." Each federal agency has its own set of Section 504 regulations. Among the requirements common to these regulations are those governing effective communication with people who have hearing or visual disabilities. Each agency enforces its own regulations. Section 504 may be enforced through private lawsuits. It is not necessary to file a complaint with a federal agency before going to court.

Information on how to file complaints with the appropriate agency may be obtained from:


Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (P.L.108-442) requires public schools to make available to all eligible children with disabilities a free and appropriate education in the least-restrictive environment appropriate to their individual needs. IDEA provides an important cornerstone for the exercise of this right through the requirement of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each child deemed to be eligible, which provides an accountable planning and documentation process outlining the specific special education and related services needs of the student.

In brief, IDEA authorizes a state formula grant program for the federal share of special education funding, and includes provisions regarding eligibility for students, evaluations, and procedural safeguards. It also authorizes a preschool grants program, early intervention programs for infants and toddlers with disabilities along with discretionary programs for program improvement, research, personnel preparation, parent training and information centers, technical assistance, technology development, and transition planning requirements for students moving from education into rehabilitation programs.

IDEA was amended in 1997 to provide improved access to braille instruction; inclusion of O&M services; consideration of assistive technology devices and services; and clarification of the right of parents to be accompanied by advocates and others with relevant expertise during the process when their child’s IEP is developed as required by law.

Chief among the significant improvements made by the 2004 amendments to IDEA is the requirement for access to instructional materials for students who are blind or visually impaired. The new amendments require states to adopt the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard and establishes a repository for receiving, maintaining, and distributing electronic copies of accessible materials. In addition, the amendments provide the option for states to use the repository or provide assurance to the U.S. Secretary of Education that they will distribute textbooks to students with print disabilities in a timely manner.

For more information, contact:


Telecommunications Act of 1996

The landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-104), the first major revision of telecommunications policy since the passage of the Communications Act of 1934, requires all manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and services to design and develop their equipment and services to be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, if readily achievable. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) final report and order implementing the requirements as outlined in Section 255 of the 1996 act is available through the FCC web site at http://ftp.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/section255.html.


Air Carrier Access Act

The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel and requires air carriers to accommodate the needs of passengers with physical or mental impairments. It applies only to air carriers that provide regularly scheduled services for hire to the public. Requirements address a wide range of issues, including those of particular interest to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. These requirements, relating to such issues as passenger seating assignments, guide dogs, assistive technology, and boarding assistance in newly built aircraft and new or altered airport facilities, may be found in the U.S. Department of Transportation's final rule (Title 14 CFR, Part 382). The act and the final rule also provide for a complaint process that includes requirements for the availability of a conflict resolution officer to assist in immediate resolution of disputes at the airport.

For further information or to file a complaint, contact:


Help America Vote Act of 2002

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) (P.L. 107-252) extends important access requirements to every part of the voting process, including accessibility of voting machines, voter registration, and poll worker training. In addition, HAVA established an Election Assistance Commission to participate in the administration of federal elections and provide assistance with the administration of federal election laws and programs. The commission also assists in the establishment of minimum election standards for state and local government units with responsibility for the administration of federal elections.

For further information and assistance in directing filed complaints, contact:


Additional Programs and Policies

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

The Library of Congress administers a free library program of braille and audio materials circulated to eligible borrowers and distributed through a cooperating network of regional and local libraries. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) selects and produces full-length books, magazines, and other materials in braille, audio, and related formats. Reading materials and playback machines are sent to borrowers free of charge and are returned to libraries by postage-free mail. Specific information about eligibility and the catalog of materials may be obtained from regional and local libraries or by contacting NLS at www.loc.gov/nls/.

Free Matter for the Blind

A special or "Free" mailing privilege is another important right that has been extended to blind and other persons with disabilities who cannot use or conveniently read conventionally printed material due to a physical handicap. The privilege is conditional upon the determination of eligibility and the type of material. Specific information may be obtained through local post offices or by obtaining a copy of Publication 347 "Mailing Free Matter for Blind and Visually Handicapped Persons" from:


Randolph-Sheppard Act

The Randolph-Sheppard Act (P.L.74-732, as amended) grants a priority right to blind and visually impaired individuals to operate cafeterias, vending machines, snack bars, and gift shops on federal property. The act also provides the authority for the establishment of a committee of blind vendors in each state to work with the state licensing authority to oversee and provide management assistance to vending facility operators. Federal oversight is provided by the U.S. Department of Education, Rehabilitation Services Administration, Blind and Visually Impaired Division. Further information may be obtained from www.ed.gov.

Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act

Javits-Wagner-O'Day (JWOD) Act (P.L. 92-28), established the Committee for the Purchase from the Blind or Severely Disabled, an independent federal agency to facilitate the distribution of government orders of procurement list products and services among nonprofit agencies employing people who are blind or have other severe disabilities. The committee has designated National Industries for the Blind and National Industries for the Severely Handicapped as the national central nonprofit organizations to assist nonprofit agencies in their participation in the program. This legislation helps provide employment in manufacturing, service, supervisory, and professional and management positions to persons who are blind or visually impaired who are employed by the nonprofit agencies participating in JWOD designated programs. Further information may be obtained from www.jwod.gov.


Key Canadian Programs and Legislation

As in the United States, the Canadian government has expressed a strong commitment to the rights of its citizens who have disabilities and has been involved for several years in reexamining, strengthening, and focusing its efforts. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms contained within the Canadian constitution guarantees people with disabilities equality and equal protection under the law. The Canadian Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability, was amended in 1998 to add a "duty to accommodate" persons with disabilities; this law applies to federal employers and service providers. The Employment Equity Act was passed in 1986, and the Omnibus Bill of 1992 guarantees a large number of specific rights. In 1997, the Opportunities Fund for Persons with Disabilities, administered by Social Development Canada, was created to help individuals with disabilities move into paid employment through such activities as job creation, training, provision of adaptive equipment and personal supports, and wage subsidies. Other key federal legislation includes the Canada Assistance Plan of 1966, the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements and Established Programs Financing Act of 1977, and the National Training Act of 1982.

In policy statements, Social Development Canada has affirmed its commitment to active measures to promote independence, employment, and accessibility for people with disabilities. But up to the present, Canada has not passed sweeping antidiscrimination legislation such as the ADA in the United States; nor does it have national education legislation such as IDEA. As in the United States, government directives are administered by different departments, such as Transport Canada, the Library and Archives Canada, Department of Justice, Canada, Public Works and Government Services Canada, Veterans Affairs Canada, and so forth.



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