From Monkeys to Robots: A Nonprofit Evolves

By Diane Nahabedian |  June 1, 2022  |  Massnonprofit News

After more than four decades of successfully delivering on our mission of providing trained monkeys to help adults with physical disabilities live independent lives, we recognized we needed to adjust the way we operate in response to regulatory, market, and technology changes.

It sounded strange in 1979: Train a monkey as a service animal for adults living with physical disabilities. Today at Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers, a Boston-based nonprofit, we proudly say that hundreds of adults live more independent lives because of our capuchin monkeys.

As one of the first non-human personal assistants, the animals helped with daily tasks, and were provided, free. Now, the organization, staying true to its mission of providing services to those living with physical disabilities, primarily spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis, as well as other debilitating injuries and illnesses, is transitioning from a service animal model to using innovative technologies – a seismic and exciting transformation.

No other organization in the country ever used capuchin monkeys as service animals, and we made a positive difference in many lives. However, the model had to change because:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act only recognizes dogs and miniature horses as service animals.
  • The need for our services is declining as technology advances.
  • The U.S. Department of Transportation does not allow monkeys on planes.
  • A majority of states do not allow primates in home environments.

While it seems simple to retire a colony of elder monkeys and commence using technology to transition the organization; it is quite complex.

How We Began

When COVID hit in March of 2020, the training and placing of service monkeys was winding down. When I joined the organization in September 2020, our board was discussing next steps. Together we began exploring options for the future. We started with lots of planning, talking, Zoom meetings, and a sense of humor.

The first step was defining a vision. Simply stated, we aspire to serve anyone with physical and cognitive disabilities by providing education, advocacy, and quality of life services.

The second step was to make that vision a reality. We—board members, staff, our clients, friends, anyone who wanted to join in the discussion—gathered, via Zoom, for four brainstorming sessions in the spring of 2021. The parameters were simple. Each session was 90 minutes, everyone who wanted to speak was given a chance, and we had to stick to the topics around the vision. The sessions were not always easy, but the outcomes were interesting and got us to the third step: a direction.

The direction became our 2022-2025 strategic plan, which we are now executing.

Technology is Our New Monkey

When our founders first began training the primate to be a non-human personal assistant the goal was to give individuals more independence. The goal of new technologies is to provide the resources to allow someone to choose how to live – go back to school, work, get married, in essence use technology for more empowered and independent lives.

To assist the process and continue to transition we are:

  • Engaging in research of technology that is available in the areas of robotics and virtual reality.
  • Looking for ways to influence the development of new technologies that are important to those living with physical disabilities.
  • Bringing on advisory committees with experts in the field to advise us on technologies that are available for those living with physical disabilities and/or may be looking to invent technologies for those living with physical disabilities.
  • Relying on our institutional knowledge of how we trained the monkeys and what our recipients needed as we transition to our new phase.
  • Collaborating with technology companies, universities, entrepreneurs, as well as new clients to experiment with robotics and virtual reality that will aid individuals living with a physical disability.

Specific technologies under consideration include different types of robotic arms, exoskeletons, adaptive wheelchairs, and assistive technologies to make homes smart.

We are creating a robotics pilot project with the Institute of Experiential Robotics at Northeastern University and George, who has multiple sclerosis, and his wife Deborah, his primary care giver. Northeastern scientists will work with the couple to find a robotic arm that helps George with his daily living needs, freeing Deborah from some of the tasks she performs to assist George. Additionally, we are working with virtual reality developers and Billy, a young man who lives with a spinal cord injury. Billy will advise the virtual reality developers on how to adapt the technology for his use.

Our transition will continue over the next three to five years and is rolling out smoothly due to the unstinting commitment and hard work of our board and staff. And, about our capuchins? They are having a lovely retirement, and we are ensuring they are living their best lives ever.

Diane S. Nahabedian is the executive director of Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers. She can be reached at dianen@monkeyhelpers.org.

View the original article here.

Staff Diane S. Nahabedian - portrait
From Monkeys to Robots: A Nonprofit Evolves - written by Diane Nahabedian for Massnonprofit News, June 1, 2022.
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