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Splash Barred from Office

State Capital Bureau

April 11, 1995

JEFFERSON CITY _ Judy Burch works for Rehabilitation Services for the Blind. But she had to hire a lawyer to keep her job, because she was repeatedly told she could not have her seeing-eye guide dog in the work place.

The problems started in July, 1992. Back then, Judy was told she had to take her guide dog, a German Sheppard named Splash, out of the office, because the staff claimed they were bitten by fleas.

"Even though we had five different veterinarians looking at the dog, and we had our house inspected for fleas, the reports were unanimous in their finding no fleas at all," said Patrick Burch, Judy's husband.

With evidence disputing the complaints of fleas, Judy was allowed to take the dog back into the office for a period of three and a half months.

"But after that, her supervisor continually harassed her, saying she was running into the people with her dog, and she's still having some problems," Burch said.

Patrick Burch, who is with the National Federation of the Blind, says that these problems of access with the guide dogs are not well publicized because people think there are already laws concerning this matter. But, Burch says, current laws are proving to be inconsistent.

Problems like those encountered by the Burches is the object of a bill introduced by Rep. Bill Boucher, D-Kansas City.

The bill will make it illegal to bar someone with a "service animal" from a public place or vehicle.

In addition to bringing the state into compliance with the federal American with Disabilities Act (ADA), Boucher said his bill would serve to inform the public that there is a specific law protecting rights of access for more than just guide dogs.

The bill defines "service animals" are those trained to guide or assist people with disabilities, blind (guide dog), deaf (hearing dog), or other physical disabilities (service dog).

"As blind people, we are lucky, because we used dogs in America since 1929. The service dogs used by people in wheelchairs or by deaf people are relatively new, and some people just don't understand how useful the dogs are to them. They have even more problems than us explaining," Burch said.

Both Patrick and Judy Burch are blind and both have guide dogs. They had other problems of access, such as in restaurants or taxi-cabs. But Patrick said the hardest problem was with the work place, because _ after all _ Judy works for an agency that exists to serve the blind.

"I don't know what's wrong with them. What I personally believe is that there is the philosophy among some people that the guide dogs for the blind should not be used, because they believe that you don't reflect yourself as being independent. They think that you're somewhat less than a good role model because you use a dog to lead you," Burch said.

Sondra Larson, Judy's old supervisor, said this problem was an internal personal matter with the Family Services Division that she was unable to discuss.

Larson has since moved the from the St. Louis office to the Jefferson City office of the Rehabilitation Services for the Blind.

Correspondence between the Burches and agency officials indicate there had been a suspected problem with fleas.

In February 1995, the Interim Director of the Rehabilitation Services for the Blind, Dwain Hovis, wrote a letter of apology to the Burches.

"Please accept our apologies for any inconveniences or unresolved problems in the past," Hovis wrote.

About the idea that dogs makes the people with disabilities look dependent, Patrick Burch says it's absolutely the opposite.

"My wife and I are totally blind, but we own our home, we are rising three children, we both have full jobs, and the dogs make us independent to do that. People would have to walk in our shoes to realize how useful dogs are to us," Burch said.

Meanwhile, Boucher's bill was stalled in the House Consumer Protection for much of the 1995 legislative session. With only a month left in the session, the bill has little chance of passage.