The Rehabilitation Act is recognized as the first federal civil rights law protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Signed October 1, 1973, this law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Section 504 of the legislation provides that "No qualified person with a disability shall, solely by reason of his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." 
 From the text of Section 504, accessed July 12, 2001, at http://americanhistory.si.edu/disabilityrights/.
The Evolution of Section 504
Originally, Section 504 was intended to prevent discrimination in employment. By the time the Section 504 rules and regulations went into effect on April 28, 1977; however, a series of amendments extended their coverage to all areas of civil rights, including education, employment, health, welfare, and other social service programs.
Section 504 is currently applied to all entities that receive federal government funds, including states, counties, cities, towns, villages, and their political subdivisions; instrumentalities of states and their political subdivisions; public and private institutions; other health service providers; public and private colleges; public and private agencies; and any other entities that receive federal money.
Each federal agency has its own set of Section 504 regulations that apply to its own programs. Those for the Department of Education (DOE) require that entities that operate public elementary and secondary education programs must provide a "Free Appropriate Public Education" to each qualified person with a disability who is in the agency's jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the person's disability. Provisions for educational equity were further strengthened in 1975 with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).