The federal Americans with Disabilities Act protects job applicants and employees from workplace discrimination based on their disabilities. The ADA also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to allow qualified employees with disabilities to do their jobs.
Because medical examinations and questions might reveal the existence or extent of an employee’s disability, they can present complicated issues under the ADA. On the one hand, employers aren’t allowed to make decisions based on an employee’s disability, so they can't go digging around in an employee’s medical records or asking intrusive questions to look for potential problems. On the other hand, an employer may have a legitimate need to learn more about an employee’s medical condition in order to make sure an employee can do the job safely or provide an effective reasonable accommodation.
The ADA tries to balance these concerns by allowing employers to make inquiries about an employee’s disability or require an employee to take a medical exam only if the requirement is job-related and consistent with business necessity. Below, we describe the situations that meet this test. (Note that these rules cover only current employees; applicants are subject to different rules.)
Not every potentially health-related question or test is regulated by the ADA. Your employer can always ask after your well-being—if you’ve been out sick or are going through a difficult divorce, for example. Your employer can also require you to take a test for illegal use of drugs, as current illegal drug use is not a disability under the ADA.
Your employer, however, is restricted in its right to make disability-related inquiries: questions that are likely to elicit information about your disability, whether posed to you or anyone else, including a coworker, a family member, or a doctor. For example, your employer may not ask whether you take any prescription drugs, whether you have a disability, or whether you carry any genetic markers for particular diseases or conditions.
Employers are also restricted in requiring employees to undergo medical exams—tests or procedures in a medical setting or overseen by a health care provider—about the employee’s physical or mental health or conditions. Examples of these types of tests include eye exams, hearing tests, blood pressure tests, CAT scans, MRI scans, X-rays, and so on.
But as noted above, an employer is not absolutely prohibited from requiring these exams or making these inquiries. An employer can require them only in certain situations.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the ADA and other laws prohibiting discrimination, has regulations that spell out when an employer can ask questions or test you in ways that might reveal your disability. They are:
If your employer requires you to take a medical exam, you are generally entitled to see your own health care provider. However, you might have to see a health care provider of the employer’s choosing if either of the following is true.
If you believe your employer is violating the ADA by requiring you to provide medical information or take a medical exam, you should talk to an employment lawyer right away. By getting legal advice before you decide whether or not to comply with the employer’s request, you can best protect your privacy and your legal rights under the ADA. If your employer has already taken action against you (such as firing you for refusing to take an exam or treating you differently once you reveal you have a disability), a lawyer can help you assess the facts and figure out whether you have a strong legal claim against your employer.