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Documentation of a Learning Disability

Consultants' Corner: Volume 05, Issue 03

From the desk of Melanie Whetzel, M.A., CBIS, Principal Consultant, Team Lead

One of the questions JAN often receives from employers is whether they can ask for current medical documentation when an employee with a learning disability provides documentation that dates back to high school. The answer is that in some cases, the old documentation is sufficient. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), when an employee requests an accommodation and the employee's disability and need for accommodation are not obvious, the employer can ask for documentation to show that the employee actually has a disability and really needs the requested accommodation.

To determine whether an employee has a disability, an employer may request documentation that shows whether the employee has an impairment and whether that impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities. An employer may require that the documentation come from an appropriate health care or rehabilitation professional. Appropriate professionals include, but are not limited to, doctors (including psychiatrists, psychologists, neuropsychologists, and oncologists), nurse practitioners, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, vocational rehabilitation specialists, and licensed mental health professionals.

Typically, documentation that shows an employee has a disability comes from a medical doctor. However, learning disabilities are not diagnosed by medical doctors; they are usually diagnosed by a psychologist through the use of intelligence testing, as well as academic achievement testing most often done at a school by an educational psychologist. Many children and adolescents with learning difficulties are referred to a multidisciplinary team at school by teachers who have noticed and documented difficulties. There are also adults who come to realize over the course of their careers the increasing difficulties they have with job tasks. Sometimes when jobs change individuals realize that the difficulties they are having are more in-depth than adjusting to a new job with added or different tasks.

Certain medical conditions change and limitations may fluctuate over time, therefore current or relatively recent documentation is recommended when evaluating whether an employee has a disability and what accommodations might be effective. However, because learning and intellectual disabilities are lifelong and static, no updated documentation should be needed if the individual was tested or re-evaluated at or above the age of eighteen. Most public school systems will re-evaluate students during the senior year of high school so that the student will have the most current documentation for the transition-to-work process. The most comprehensive documentation will be in the form of a psychological-educational report, and will include a description of testing results, performance levels, and areas of strength and weakness. Probably the most useful information for employers will be in the summary and conclusions section at the end.

For individuals who cannot locate past documentation of a learning disability diagnosis and limitations, JAN recommends talking with the primary care physician for a referral to a psychologist who can perform the testing and provide the needed documentation. Many insurance policies do not pay for this type of evaluation and the burden to provide and pay for the medical documentation falls on the individual, not the employer. If paying for testing is a problem, JAN recommends individuals contact either the local vocational rehabilitation office or the nearest university with a doctoral psychology department to see if either can provide the needed services to obtain the evaluation. Vocational rehabilitation services are provided at no cost to the individual, whereas a university often charges on a sliding pay scale, which may be more affordable than a more formal evaluation from a licensed psychologist.

Many of the difficulties one has as a student may occur in the workplace as well. For example, students who had difficulty in written expression find that job tasks requiring writing will remain problematic. The same is true for reading or mathematical difficulties. Sometimes the accommodations or modifications that worked in the educational setting may be helpful in the workplace. While some previous accommodations may work, or may need to be tweaked, employees sometimes find that they need completely new accommodations. Depending on the specific needs of the individual, as well as the demands of the job, each case should be looked at and decisions made on the basis of each individual's impairment and limitations.

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