Can my doctor suggest reasonable accommodations?

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Question:

I have attention deficit disorder (ADD), a condition that affects my ability to concentrate and focus. I have taken medication for my ADD since I was a teenager, and I periodically meet with a physician to discuss my condition and adjust my medication. I recently started a new job. I told my supervisor that I had ADD and spoke to him about some of the accommodations that have worked for me in the past, such as receiving work assignments in writing, having weekly progress meetings, and wearing headphones to drown out distracting noise. My supervisor doesn't have any experience with ADD, so I was thinking it might be helpful for my doctor to write a note explaining my condition and its effects. Can my doctor ask for reasonable accommodations on my behalf? 

Answer:

Your doctor can suggest possible accommodations, but your employer doesn't have to agree to them. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers must provide reasonable accommodations to allow employees with disabilities to do their jobs. However, an employer need not provide the precise accommodation the employee requests; it may suggest different accommodations, as long as they are effective in allowing the employee to work. 

An employer need not provide an accommodation that creates an undue hardship: significant expense or difficulty, given the size and resources of the employer. Cost is probably the main reason why employers don't adopt a particular accommodation. However, the employer is obligated to work with you to come up with an accommodation that will be effective. 

Providing a note from your doctor is a great way to educate an employer who is unfamiliar with your condition. Because doctors specialize, your doctor likely has many patients with ADD, and therefore expertise in the types of workplace accommodations that have been effective for other patients (and for you in the past). 

Your doctor will want you to sign a consent form, allowing the doctor to provide details about your medical condition that would otherwise have to be kept confidential. Once you've given your consent, the doctor should write a brief letter explaining your condition and suggesting possible accommodations. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that interprets and enforces the ADA, recently issued some guidance on doctors' notes. The EEOC suggests that doctors provide the following information: 

  • A brief statement of the doctor's credentials and history of treating the employee. 
  • The employee's diagnosis, including how the condition would manifest if left untreated. (This information is necessary to allow the employer to determine whether the employee has a disability under the ADA.)
  • Why reasonable accommodation is necessary. The doctor should explain why your ADD necessitates changes at work. For example, your doctor might state that it is difficult for you to concentrate in an environment with background noise. 
  • Possible accommodations that might work. Your doctor can suggest accommodations that might work, such as headphones or receiving written assignments. However, your doctor can't dictate what the employer has to do. That's why it's often best for the doctor to suggest a range of possible accommodations, or to provide information on what has been effective for the employee in the past. If your doctor overstates the need for a particular accommodation, and the employer is unable to provide it, the employer may conclude that no reasonable accommodation exists that would allow you to do your job. 

Ask your doctor to provide you with a copy of the letter, so you'll know exactly what information your employer is using to make its decisions. Once your company has received the letter, schedule a meeting with your manager to go over possible accommodations and come up with a workable solution. 

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