Oklahoma Bar Journal

The Back Page | A Personal Reflection on the Rehabilitation Act at 50

By Amy Gioletti

yurakrasil | #514797444 | stock.adobe.com

Sept. 26 is the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a landmark law that includes “Section 504,” prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities in federally funded programs and services. The Rehabilitation Act, and in particular, Section 504, was groundbreaking because it provided civil rights to persons with disabilities, and it served as a model for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

My brother was four years old. He spoke only a few words, one of which was “swimming.” I was sitting with my mother in the first of many meetings with school officials. That time, they wanted to remove Zach from swimming time. It was clear to me this conversation would devolve quickly into stereotypes and hurt feelings, not to mention potential legal challenges. I knew that every morning, my brother woke up excited for swimming time, even on weekends. “Swimming, swimming, swimming!” he sang. The water soothed the strain on his muscles and bones. Equally important was the laughter he shared with his friends during swimming time. By suggesting the removal of it, school officials proposed to deny Zach one of the few chances he had to freely exist in the world as a child with other children. This meeting mattered.

We left the meeting with a solution, and Zach kept swimming. It is no small thing that my brother had the opportunity to continue to participate with his peers in a meaningful activity to him because of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. In fact, the doors of public education were only open to him because of the law: Section 504, preceding court cases and other federal laws providing access to public education for students with disabilities.

Since the Rehabilitation Act was enacted 50 years ago, other civil rights laws have been enacted, and there have been cultural shifts as well. There have been remarkable technological advances as well as more basic advancements in society, such as accessible shopping carts and adult-sized changing tables. These types of supports assist persons with physical disabilities in navigating the built environment and expand opportunities to participate in basic community life with dignity.

Even still, there are not enough services. My brother remained on the state waiting list for the Medicaid waiver program for a decade. He died waiting, like so many other people whose lives would have vastly improved with access to myriad in-home supports. Community-based living – true choice and self-direction – benefits the person and the entire community. All our lives are enriched when we can know our neighbors and move through the world as we choose for ourselves. Not to mention the immeasurable benefits of the removal of physical, systemic and attitudinal barriers so that all of us can enter society through the front door.

In law school, one of my professors frequently asked, “Do laws change first, or do people?” As guardians of the Constitution, we often see first-hand how rhetorical – perhaps even silly – this question is. In my view, people change laws, and sometimes, laws change people. Change can be slow, but it feels even slower when your life depends on it.

On 50 years of the Rehabilitation Act, may we reflect on the legacy of persons with disabilities and their allies, who participated in protests and sit-ins to demand its passage and, later, regulatory enactment. May we also reflect on the work we might all do, personally or professionally, to ensure the front door is open to everyone.

Ms. Gioletti lives in Oklahoma City.


Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal – OBJ 95 Vol 7 (September 2023)

Statements or opinions expressed in the Oklahoma Bar Journal are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Oklahoma Bar Association, its officers, Board of Governors, Board of Editors or staff.