Animals As Assistive Technology

Click to share this on facebook.Click to tweet this blog post.

by Nubyaan Scott, Program Coordinator for the AT Network

There are many different definitions for “Assistive Technology (AT)”. I usually rely on a fairly simple explanation: AT is any tool used by a person with a disability to do things for themselves that might otherwise be difficult to do. Under that definition many things can be a form of AT, including animals!
I think it is safe to say that anyone who has ever heard of the term “service animal” associates that phrase with guide dogs who assist people who are blind or have low vision. Guide

picture of three golden lab guide dogs all laying down side by side with their handlers' knees showing that they are sitting

dogs have been working in the United States since the 1920s, and are still a present part of society. The presence of guide dogs opened the door for people with disabilities to find a variety of animals that could provide them with service, support, or therapy –and many animals provide all three. I’d like to share with you some examples of animals being used as AT that may be a bit “outside of the box”.

Guide Horses
The Guide Horse Foundation provides ponies to individuals who are blind, as a way to increase their mobility. The program is relatively new and considered experimental. One might wonder why a person who is blind doesn’t just get a guide dog. Well, I am sure that you know at least a few people who are not dog lovers, are allergic to dogs, or do not live in dog-friendly housing. And, an added bonus of having a Guide Horse is that horses have longer life spans than most other guide animals.
Monkey Helpers
picture of a man in a power wheelchair with a helper monkey onto his shoulder and his arm on his side
Helping Hands: Monkey Helpershas been providing adults with spinal cord injuries or other disabilities that limit mobility with trained Capuchin service monkeys that assist with daily tasks. The monkeys are given customized in-home training in their new environments and they are provided at no-cost to the recipient. A monkey helper can assist with tasks like scratching itches, retrieving dropped objects, inserting straws into bottles, turning on buttons/switches, repositioning limbs on a wheelchair, and many other things. At some point towards the end of their lives, monkey helpers will need to be retired from service. At that time, they can be placed by Monkey Helpers into homes that will care for the monkey’s needs.
Emotional Support Animals
While many service animals also become companions to those that they help, they are legally separate from emotional support animals (ESAs). The main legal difference is that ESAs have less restrictive legal definitions, and are also therefore given less legal protection. For instance, a service animal has a legal right to accompany their handler to hotels and pretty much any other public place, but an emotional support animal does not have that legal right. ESAs are given two main legal protections: 1) they can fly with their handler, and, 2) they can live in housing that does not allow pets. And, skipping all of the legal gobbledygook, they are mainly different from service animals because they do not perform any specific service tasks. Emotional support animals help to ease the emotional or psychiatric symptoms of their companion’s disabilities. As a result, ESAs come in all breeds, shapes, sizes, and species.
Keep in mind that this is a general summary of the rules and regulations regarding emotional support animals. You can read Disability Rights California’s guide on the subject, for a more in-depth explanation:
Read-to-Pet Programs
Read-to-pet programs are set up to provide support to people who are learning how to read. Think back to when you were learning to read—you may remember it as a stressful experience. These programs are meant to ease the tension that can build within new readers. Many programs have found success in having learners read to dogs, which helps people to regain their confidence and not give up on reading even when it is difficult. The programs that take place are just as they sound for the most part. Readers are allowed to read to a dog, which helps to provide a calm environment, and consequently helps to develop reading skills.
picture of a girl with a helmet on on top of a horse smiling and two handlers on the side walking with the girl and the horse

Hippotherapy is a physical, occupational, and speech-language therapy treatment strategy that uses equine movement as part of an incorporated intervention plan to achieve practical results. Hippotherapy can help organize the nervous system by establishing new neuro-pathways. The movement of a horse creates a particular rhythm which stimulates muscles in the rider, as if the person were walking. The process can result in improved balance, coordination, flexibility, and strength. Hippotherapy can help with disabilities like attention deficit disorder, back pain, developmental delays, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injuries, and stroke.

Operation Purple Program
Operation Purple is a camp for children who have a parent who is deployed in the military. Having a deployed parent is a very stressful experience for a child. So, the American Humane Association’s Animal-Assisted Therapy Program collaborated with the National Military Family Association to provide trained therapy dogs at their Operation Purple camps. Through their interactions, the dogs provide a calm presence and can create the feeling of a safe environment. This can help the children to communicate any fear, anger, or feelings of uncertainty.
I hope you were able to learn a fun fact or two from this blog! Please share your experiences with animals being used as assistive technology.

2 thoughts on “Animals As Assistive Technology

  1. You are right, there are so many service animals out there. In addition to what was mentioned, Canine Companions for Independence and other organizations like them train dogs to assist with hearing, daily tasks, and to be skilled companions. Many dogs are trained to alert if you are about to have a seizure.

  2. Thank you so much for your post, very well said on such a vast topic! I am currently writing my scholarly paper on animal-assisted interventions for individuals with autism spectrum disorder and am exploring the idea of emotional support animals being considered AT for workplaces. However, it seems like from your post, that such animals would not necessarily be legally allowed/able to be in workplaces – unless an employer specifically agreed to the accommodation? But if that emotional support need was the only major obstacle keeping an individual from performing a job and the animal accommodation/AT was not considered an ‘undue hardship’ for the employer, they would be bound to try and allow it by the ADA correct? Maybe? Side-note: I have heard that monkeys have not made effective assistance animals for individuals with disabilities, because they learn behaviors and eventually have been found to ‘taunt’ the individuals. I’m not sure how valid/widespread this finding has been, but definitely interesting. Great post again!

Leave a Reply