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
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
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
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:
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 (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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