Proposed Rule Would Significantly Advance Disability Protections in Healthcare and Human Services

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a new proposed rule that would provide substantial updates to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act that would improve the accessibility of health and human services for people who are disabled.

50 years after the law was enacted, the new rule – “Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance” – seeks to advance the goal of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to include medical equipment and websites and to further eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities in any program or activity receiving HHS funding. They have proposed a rule to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability and update the original rule (originally from 1977).

The mission of HHS is to enhance the health and well-being of all Americans by providing effective health and human services and by fostering sound, sustained advances in the sciences underlying medicine, public health, and social services. In a press release, HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Director Melanie Fontes Rainer says the proposed rule is “long overdue, and a major step forward in the fight to ensure that people with disabilities are not excluded from or discriminated against in health care and social services across the United States.”

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) clarifies the application of Section 504 as it relates to medical treatment decisions, web, mobile, and kiosk accessibility, medical equipment accessibility standards, funding requirements for child welfare programs, medical decision assessments that devalue individuals with disabilities, and provides services in integrated settings to accommodate people with disabilities.

Administration for Community Living leader Alison Barkoff says the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the discrimination that 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.”

Vispero Vice President Matt Ater recently spoke to Healthcare IT Today about the ongoing fight among disability advocates to make accessible websites, mobile apps, self-service kiosks, and medical devices, citing these proposed changes as a landmark for progressing the accessibility of healthcare facilities and devices.

Ater says he hopes that digital accessibility for people with disabilities in the healthcare space becomes as common as wheelchair ramps are now. “Every person with a disability should be able to enter and navigate a healthcare facility, fill out forms, read the results of a blood pressure device, and follow instructional videos without the need for a helper. Making these items more accessible often benefits all patients, regardless of disability.”

Section 504 prohibits discrimination against disabilities in programs and activities that receive Federal financial assistance or are conducted by a Federal agency. This NPRM would provide consistency with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act, amendments to the Rehabilitation Act, and more.

From a technology standpoint, the proposed rule would expand the current rule to include digital, kiosk, and medical equipment accessibility and hopefully lead to meaningful requirements that drive change.

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