Mentally disabled seek rights to service animals

By Christi Warren

JEFFERSON CITY – Ten-year-old Sean LaRochelle sat quietly with his dog while his father testified during a public hearing Wednesday.

According to his father, Matt LaRochelle, for his son to sit quietly would have been nearly impossible four years ago, prior to his family’s ownership of Cady, Sean LaRochelle’s service dog. Sean LaRochelle has severe autism.

“I would have to be chasing him out of the room or down the hall,” Matt LaRochelle said.

Without the assistance of Cady, Matt LaRochelle said his family essentially would be homebound.

“If we were to go into a store and I tried to write a check, he’s going to walk away,” Matt LaRochelle said. “If he sees a puddle, if he sees a bird or something like that, the awareness to know that crossing a street with oncoming traffic is going to be a dangerous activity is not there.”

The House Special Standing Committee on Disability Services heard the bill, called “Sean’s Law” in honor of LaRochelle. If passed, the legislation would extend the right to use service animals in public places to those with mental disabilities, a privilege currently afforded only to those with physical, visual and auditory disabilities.

The legislation would expand to include those with autism, mental health disabilities, traumatic brain injuries and seizure disorders. Constituent Angela Peacock called these disabilities “invisible.” Peacock, an Army veteran, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia and major depression. Peacock relies on her service dog, G.I. Joe, for support in managing her disabilities.

“I tried everything the [Department of Veterans Affairs] and Western medicine had to offer,” Peacock said. Her lack of success in controlling her symptoms with conventional medicine led her to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

In 2008, she was partnered with her service dog. His ability to sense and wake Peacock from combat-related nightmares, guide her through crowds that she said she would otherwise completely avoided and to relieve her from the symptoms of her panic disorders through his touch gave her a sense of autonomy. A little more than two years following her initial partnership with G.I. Joe, Peacock is now enrolled in her first semester of college after a 10-year hiatus.

“Our disabilities may be invisible, but they are no less debilitating than visible disabilities,” Peacock said.

The bill sponsor, Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis County, said the bill has a long way to go but remains hopeful it will be attached to an omnibus bill among other pieces of disability rights legislation.

No one spoke in opposition to the bill.