Section 503: What Does It Mean for Someone with a Disability?

In Employment Articles, Featured, News by Sarah Lyngdal

A lot of hype surrounded the revisions to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 when the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) implemented the changes in 2014. Some said it was a “game changer” for increasing opportunities for people with disabilities to get back into and remain in the workforce.

Five years later, let’s revisit the goals of this legislation and the impact it has on employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

What is Section 503?

Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities by federal contractors and subcontractors. Additionally, it requires these employers to take affirmative action to recruit, hire, promote, and retain individuals with disabilities.

What Does This Mean?

Section 503 Final Rule encourages federal contractors and subcontractors to have 7% of their employees qualified individuals with disabilities. The 7% utilization goal is a target, not a quota requirement. It’s a way to get employers’ attention to include disability in their recruitment and hiring strategies. The federal government requires these contractors to set affirmative action goals and to report progress towards achieving their goals to hire and retain a diverse workforce, including qualified individuals with disabilities.

The 7% “utilization goal” applies to contractors or subcontractors with federal contracts of $10,000 or more. For federal contractors with 100 or more employees, the 7% goal applies to each job group, or category. If the contractor has fewer than 100 employees, the 7% utilization goal applies to the entire workforce.

How Will Employers Do This?

One way federal contractors may meet the 7% utilization goal is by encouraging applicants and current employees to disclose that they are an individual with a disability.

Prior to 2014, federal contractors were prohibited from making disability-related inquiries prior to an employment offer under the Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Now with Section 503, the employer can invite applicants to voluntarily self-identify as having a disability. The 503 Final Rule requires that contractors offer applicants the opportunity to self-identify as individuals with disabilities at both the pre- and post-offer stages of the application process.

However, contractors MUST use language prescribed by the Department of Labor’s OFCCP. On online job postings, this voluntary self-identification section must be included with the race/gender information request.

If the employer invites applicants to voluntarily self-identify in connection with providing affirmative action, the employer must do the following:

  • state clearly on any written questionnaire, or state clearly orally (if no written questionnaire is used), that the information requested is used solely in connection with its affirmative action obligations or efforts; and
  • state clearly that the information is being requested on a voluntary basis, that it will be kept confidential in accordance with the ADA, that refusal to provide it will not subject the applicant to any adverse treatment, and that it will be used only in accordance with the ADA.

In order to ensure that the self-identification information is kept confidential, the information must be on a form that is kept separate from the application.

What If I Don’t Feel Comfortable Disclosing My Disability?

The decision to disclose disability is a personal one. Some individuals don’t feel comfortable disclosing disability to a potential employer, and that’s okay. The only instances in which you would have to disclose disability is when you’re requesting a reasonable accommodation.

Here are some important things to know about disclosing your disability:

  • If you do not disclose at the pre-offer stage, there are still many opportunities to update your disability status, if you choose to. Contractors must invite current employees to self-identify every five years, as well as remind employees regularly that they can update their disability status confidentially at any time.
  • An employer cannot coerce you to self-identify or ask for proof of your disability.
  • An employer can ask if you have a disability but cannot ask what the disability is. Furthermore, voluntarily disclosed disability information must remain confidential and separate from your personnel file.

Weigh the pros and cons of disclosing your disability and decide on a case by case basis if it’s the right move for you, for each application you submit, and for each company you work for.

What is the Benefit of Section 503?

Section 503 aims at reducing the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities by encouraging federal contractors and subcontractors to hire and retain qualified individuals with disabilities. Identifying as a person with a disability anywhere in the application process should be a positive for an applicant since that’s a priority hiring pool for the employer.

What Are the Limitations of Section 503?

Now that we’re a few years into this, let’s talk about some of the limitations of Section 503.

The 7% utilization is a goal, not a requirement. Nothing happens if the employer doesn’t reach that goal; there aren’t sanctions for failure to meet affirmative action goals. The federal contractor needs to conduct an annual utilization analysis and assessment of problem areas, and then identify action steps to remedy any problems they find. So long as they make attempts to hire individuals with disabilities, and document those efforts, they are complying with their contract requirements in this area. Unfortunately, discrimination can still happen.

Disclosing disability doesn’t mean you’ll get a callback or guarantee a job offer. It’s nearly impossible to know if you didn’t get an invitation to interview or job offer because of disability disclosure, because there may have been more qualified candidates or because of some other reason.

I encourage you to weigh the pros and cons of disability disclosure and decide on a case by case basis if that’s the right move for you, for each application you submit, and company you work for.


About the Author

Sarah Lyngdal

Sarah works with ERI's Ticket to Work program with a focus on providing high quality and efficient services. She is passionate about helping individuals move forward with their employment goals. More about Sarah

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