The overview

The statutory prohibition against disability-based discrimination in federally-assisted programs and activities has been in place since 1973 with passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504). And, in the area of workforce development systems (i.e. programs and activities conducted at American Job Network centers, Job Corps centers, and unemployment insurance centers), Congress mandated nondiscrimination on the basis of disability at Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA).

Sixteen years later, while reauthorizing WIA, Congress took the opportunity to address ongoing issues related to education, training, and employment of persons with disabilities. Notably, Title IV of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA) amends Section 504 in several critical respects, and these amendments apply to federally-assisted programs and activities in the areas of workforce development, education, and training for persons with disabilities.

Congressional findings

To better understand Congress’ reasons for amending Section 504 in the workforce development arena, we need to look at its findings, which are as follows:

● A high proportion of students with disabilities is leaving secondary education without being employed in competitive integrated employment, or being enrolled in postsecondary education; and

● There is a substantial need to support such students as they transition from school to postsecondary life.

The purpose for amending Section 504

Based on the foregoing findings, Congress set forth three goals at the core of its amendments to Section 504:

● Maximize opportunities for competitive integrated employment.

Here, Congress states that it seeks to maximize opportunities for persons with disabilities, including individuals with significant disabilities, for “competitive integrated employment.”

● Increase employment opportunities.

Congress also seeks to increase employment opportunities and employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities through encouraging meaningful input by employers and vocational rehabilitation service providers on successful and prospective employment and placement strategies.

● Increase opportunities for postsecondary success.

Congress states that it seeks to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that youth with disabilities and students with disabilities who are transitioning from receipt of special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and receipt of services under Section 504 have opportunities for postsecondary success.

The concept of “competitive integrated employment”

Surveying the current educational and employment landscape, individuals with disabilities are often left unemployed, underemployed, or are employed at wages and working conditions that are lesser than their similarly-situated peers without disabilities. Notably, persons with disabilities have not been afforded individualized treatment; that is, individual consideration of their talents, education, experience, and background. Rather, they have been steered to segregated, lesser educational and employment opportunities that do not afford the individual with a disability the opportunity to live as independently as possible, and to advance within a chosen career.

WIOA amends Section 504 to add a new phrase, “competitive integrated employment.” The definition of this new phrase sheds light on Congress’ expectations. Specifically, “competitive integrated employment” is defined to include the following elements:

● Nature of the employment.

Work may be performed on a full-time or part-time basis, and may include self-employment.

● “Competitive” compensation and benefits.

An honest wage for an honest day’s work.

WIOA builds this concept into its definition of “competitive integrated employment.” In particular, a person with a disability must be compensated at the federal minimum wage, or at the state or local minimum wage, whichever is higher. And, an employer cannot compensate a person with a disability at a rate that is less than is the “customary rate paid by the employer for the same or similar work performed by employees who are not individuals with disabilities, and who are similarly situated in similar occupations by the same employer and who have similar training, experience, and skills.”

If the person with a disability is self-employed, then compensation must yield an income that is comparable to the income received by other individuals who are not individuals with disabilities, and who are self-employed in similar occupations or on similar tasks and who have similar training, experience, and skills.

● Integrated location and interaction.

Here, Congress mandates that employment of a person with a disability must be at a location where the employee interacts with other persons who are not individuals with disabilities to the same extent that individuals who are not individuals with disabilities and who are in comparable positions interact with other persons.

● Advancement.

Congress further requires that the position held by a person with a disability must present opportunities for advancement that are similar to those opportunities for other employees who are not individuals with disabilities, and who have similar positions.

The pathways to achieving “competitive integrated employment.”

Congress sets forth two pathways for achieving “competitive integrated employment”—customized employment and supported employment.

“Customized employment” involves a combination of individualized consideration of the strengths, needs, and interests of an individual with a “significant disability,” job exploration, and implementation of flexible strategies by the employer to facilitate placement. Flexible strategies that may be utilized by an employer include customizing a job description, developing job duties, arranging a work schedule, delineating the specifics of supervision, and determining the job location. The process of facilitating placement of a person with a significant disability also may involve a professional chosen by the individual, or the individual may self-represent during the placement discussions.

“Supported employment,” a stepping stone to competitive integrated employment, constitutes employment where the individual with a disability, including an individual with a significant disability, works on a short-term basis in pursuit of competitive integrated employment. This type of employment is individualized and customized “consistent with the strengths, abilities, and informed choice of the individuals involved.”

Supported employment also includes “supported employment services” provided by the State for a period of 24 months, or longer if necessary, in order for the individual with a disability to successfully achieve “the employment outcome identified in the individualized plan for employment.”


There are some key concepts present in WIOA’s amendments to Section 504. Ultimately, each of us must be afforded the opportunity to live as independently as possible, and be given the education, training, and experience to succeed in our chosen way of making a living. If we look at the changes made by WIOA to Section 504, we see some common themes that are important to all of us—whether we have a disability or not. These themes include:

● Self-determination
● Integration
● Economic independence
● Advancement
● Individualized treatment
● Flexible employment strategies

It is important to keep these themes in mind when working to facilitate “competitive integrated employment” of a person with a disability. Absence of gainful, competitive employment forces the individual to use safety net services, such has housing and food subsidies, health care subsidies, and the like. Employing persons with disabilities in the community strengthens the community because a person who is gainfully, competitively employed is contributing to the economic and social well-being of the community.

About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted workforce development programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at, or visit her Web site at for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.

By way of background, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster remains highly active in the field through her series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals as well as through her mediation services, training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.” In 2007, Ms. Foster was certified as a mediator by the Virginia Supreme Court, and later obtained “Federal Workplace Mediation” certification through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service.

She is a member of the Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association. Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School.