Do I need a doctor's note to prove I have a disability?

Question

I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being stalked and assaulted by an ex-boyfriend. I've begun seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist, which has helped me start to heal. I'm trying a new anxiety medication, and I want to start attending a weekly therapy group for survivors of sexual assault. I am going to need some assistance at work to continue my recovery. In addition to time off for therapy and medical appointments, I would like to have my calls screened and also change my workspace so I am not sitting in a cubicle that is visible from the entrance to the office. My ex used to call and check on me at work, and this is causing me a lot of stress. Do I need to tell people why I want these changes? Can my employer see the notes from my therapy sessions? I'm really concerned about my privacy, but I need help.

Answer

Your employer has no right to ask for your therapists' notes, and you don't have to tell your coworkers anything unless you want to. However, you will need to tell your manager or HR representative about your condition, including the changes you want and why you believe they would help. You may also have to submit some medical documentation.

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws, employers may not discriminate against employees with disabilities. Employers must also provide reasonable accommodations to allow employees with disabilities to perform their jobs.

The ADA doesn't include a list of conditions that will always qualify as disabilities. Whether a condition is a disability depends on how it affects you as an individual. An impairment that substantially limits a major life activity or major bodily function is a disability under the ADA. PTSD generally affects proper brain functioning, among other things. So, it's likely your condition is a disability.

If you want a reasonable accommodation for a disability that is not obvious, the burden is on you to request it and provide documentation to your employer. If you were in a wheelchair and asked your employer to raise your desk height so you could fit your chair beneath it, you probably wouldn't have to document your condition. Your disability and need for an accommodation would be obvious. In the case of mental disabilities, however, employees will usually have to reveal their conditions and need for modifications.

Schedule a private meeting with your manager or HR representative and explain your situation. Explain that you have been diagnosed with PTSD and will need some accommodations to help you do your job. Describe the accommodations you would like. Although your employer doesn't have to provide the exact accommodations you want, it does have to engage in a dialogue with you to come up with an effective accommodation. As part of the process, you may be asked to provide documentation from your therapist or doctor of your condition and your need for an accommodation. (The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has posted some guidance your health care providers may find helpful: The Mental Health Provider's Role in a Client's Request for a Reasonable Accommodation at Work.)

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