Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, people with disabilities are protected from discrimination based on their disability. Yet in 2022, the Department of Health and Human Services’ civil rights office reports having received more than 51,000 civil rights or privacy complaints against health care agencies.

In light of this, it recently proposed clarifying Section 504 in an effort to enforce civil rights protections for the disability community.

The HHS proposal focuses on provisions regarding discrimination in the realm of health care.

“People with disabilities have historically been underserved by, denied equitable access to, or excluded from health programs and activities,” the proposed rule states. “That discrimination contributes to significant health disparities and poorer health outcomes than persons with disabilities would experience absent the discrimination.”

Health programs and activities funded by the federal government would be required to provide equitable access to all patients. Organizations such as the Administration for Community Living (ACL), which have issued support for the proposal, are calling attention specifically to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the disability community.

“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 of the ACL in a statement.

The proposed rule includes clarifications on the following points:

  • Preventing health care providers from making any medical treatment decisions based on flawed assumptions and stereotypes about people with disabilities
  • Stopping discriminatory practices when assessing patients with disabilities as having lives that are less valuable and “therefore less deserving of medical care”
  • Ensuring accessibility and operability of medical equipment, from mammography machines to weight scales to exam tables
  • Making digital content via web, mobile apps, and self-service kiosks accessible to all patients
  • Prohibiting discrimination against parents with disabilities whose children are involved with the child welfare system
  • Permitting use of service animals
  • Updating outdated definitions

Comments from the public will be due by November 13, 2023.