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Medical Documentation: Think about What is Needed and Stop There!

Learn more about what medical documentation is needed under the ADA

From the desk of Linda Carter Batiste, J.D., Director of Services and Publications

In our experience at JAN, there seems to be a lot of confusion about medical documentation under the ADA. Employers aren't sure what they can ask for, when they can ask for it, or whether the ADA Amendments Act changed the rules for medical documentation. Employees aren't sure what medical information they have to provide or how much to disclose. And medical professionals aren't sure what documentation will be the most helpful in getting their patients the workplace accommodations they need. Most of these questions come up when an employee requests an accommodation.

The good news is that the medical inquiry rules that apply when an employee requests an accommodation are not as complicated as they may seem. The general rule is that when the disability or need for accommodation is not obvious, an employer may require an employee to provide documentation that is sufficient to substantiate that s/he has an ADA disability and needs the reasonable accommodation requested, but cannot ask for unrelated documentation. So when thinking about what medical information to request or to provide, think about what is needed and stop there!

Let's start with the documentation needed to substantiate that the employee has a disability. The definition of disability for accommodation purposes is "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity or a record of such an impairment." So to determine whether an employee has a disability, the employer can ask whether the employee has (or had) an impairment. And if yes, can ask whether the impairment affects (or affected) a major life activity. And if yes, can ask whether the impairment substantially limits (or limited) the major life activity.

This is where the ADA Amendments Act changed some things. Although the definition of disability did not change, the threshold for showing substantial limitation is much lower than it used to be. Therefore, the documentation needed to show that an employee has a disability should be much less extensive.

What about the documentation needed to substantiate the need for an accommodation? The ADA Amendments Act did not change the reasonable accommodation provisions of the ADA so the rules for medical documentation likewise did not change. An employer is allowed to verify that the accommodation is needed, to ask questions about the employee's limitations that are causing the problem, and to get other relevant information about the request to help determine effective accommodations.

For more information, see JAN's recently updated publications related to medical documentation at JAN's A to Z: Medical Exams and Inquiries.