The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects job applicants and employees from workplace discrimination based on their disabilities. Medical exams and questions that might reveal the existence or extent of your disability to an employer present complicated issues under the ADA.
On the one hand, employers aren't allowed to make decisions based on your disability. So, your employer can't go digging around in your medical records or ask intrusive questions to look for potential problems.
But on the other hand, an employer might have a legitimate need to learn more about your medical condition, such as:
The ADA tries to balance these concerns by allowing your employer to seek information about your disability only if the need for medical information is job-related and is consistent with business necessity.
Below, we describe the situations that meet this test for current employees, including what medical information your employer can and can't ask for and what you can do if your employer crosses the line.
(The rules for job applicants are different. Learn more about how the ADA protects job applicants.)
Not every potentially health-related question or test is regulated by the ADA. Your employer can always ask about your well-being—if you've been out sick or you're going through a difficult divorce, for example. Your employer can also require you to be tested for illegal drug use, as current illegal drug use isn't a disability under the ADA.
But the ADA restricts your employer's right to make disability-related inquiries. That is—your employer can't ask questions that are likely to elicit information about your disability, including from:
For example, your employer isn't allowed to ask any of the following:
Your employer can only make medical inquiries in specific circumstances.
Your employer is restricted in requiring you to undergo medical exams—tests or procedures in a medical setting or overseen by a health care provider—about your physical or mental health or conditions. Some examples of these types of tests include the following:
As noted above, an employer isn't absolutely barred from requiring these exams. But your employer can require them only in certain situations.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency that enforces the ADA and other laws prohibiting discrimination. The EEOC has regulations that spell out when an employer can ask questions or test you in ways that might reveal your disability. Those circumstances allow employers to specific questions about the following:
Your employer can ask for more information about your condition if there's reason to believe—based on objective evidence—that you're unable to perform your essential job duties because of your medical condition.
For example, let's say your productivity has declined over the last few months. When your supervisor talks to you about it, you reveal that you've recently been diagnosed with cancer, and your chemotherapy regimen is causing you to feel fatigued. Your employer could legally request more information about your condition because it appears to be affecting your ability to perform your job functions.
Or, if you were on leave for medical reasons and your employer has reason to believe you might not be able to do your job, you can be required to undergo a fitness-for-duty exam before you return to work. (Learn more about returning to work after medical leave under the FMLA.)
Your employer can also ask for information about your condition if there's reason to believe—again, based on objective evidence—that you might pose a direct threat to yourself or others because of your condition. An employer can even terminate an employee who poses a direct threat to health or safety in the workplace—even if that threat is related to the employee's disability.
For instance, if you operate heavy machinery and you begin having sudden fainting spells, your employer could legally require a medical exam to determine whether you can safely do the job. (Learn more about what constitutes a direct threat under the ADA.)
Your employer is allowed to ask you for documentation about your disability and the effect it has on you if you need accommodation—unless your disability and need for accommodation are known or obvious. If your disability and the modifications you need are obvious, your employer isn't allowed to make this request.
For example, if you use a wheelchair and it won't fit under your desk, your employer can't require you to undergo a medical exam to prove that you need a modified work area. But if you have pain while sitting at your desk and need an accommodation for your back, your employer could inquire about your back problems to determine if an ergonomic chair or a sit/stand desk would be an appropriate accommodation for you.
Other exceptions to the ADA restrictions on medical inquiries might apply depending on the circumstances. For example, an emergency response company might require all ambulance drivers to take an annual vision test.
Similarly, other laws might require medical testing, and your employer is allowed to subject you to such tests. For example, federal law requires that flight attendants and pilots meet certain medical requirements.
If your employer requires you to take a medical exam, you're 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:
Your employer might be obligated to give you a chance to provide sufficient and adequate information from your own doctor before sending you to a different health care provider.
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 discrimination 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.
Talk to a discrimination attorney if your employer has already taken action against you, such as:
A lawyer can help you assess the facts and figure out whether you have a strong legal claim against your employer.
Learn more about what to do if you think your employer has violated your ADA rights.
Updated March 8, 2023