When Illinois wheelchair athletes aren’t training, Daisy’s on one of their treadmills.
A two-year-old basset hound, Daisy comes into the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) training facility after hours with her owners Adam and Marissa Siero to build up her strength and balance in her back. Adam, who also trains wheelchair student-athletes at the U. of I., said he’ll sometimes let Daisy hop on the treadmill in the morning before work.
Four months ago, it wasn’t clear if Daisy would be able to walk.
Paralyzed in an injury as a puppy, Daisy can wag her tail but has no feeling in her back legs. But with the help of physical rehabilitation at the U. of I. Veterinary Hospital, the active hound now uses spinal reflex walking to chase squirrels with Bella, the Siero’s other basset hound.
Or you might find her tearing down the hallway at DRES, a blur of brown fur and the whir of small wheelchair wheels.
“It’s like her wheels are on fire,” Marissa said. “And people just kind of get a big kick out of it.”
According to canine rehab practitioner Kimberly Knap, the U. of I. Veterinary Hospital established one of the first full-service rehabilitation therapy programs. Physical rehabilitation for animals became popular about 11-12 years ago, she said, with Illinois as one of the pioneers in the field.
Given Illinois’ history of individuals like Timothy Nugent pushing for greater access and services, Marissa said the veterinary hospital’s physical rehabilitation program speaks to overall culture of the U. of I. campus, where disability is never defined as being disabled.
“U. of I. separates itself because of the inclusive belief that it has for all its students, staff, professors,” Marissa paused and laughed, “puppies.”
Marissa and Adam are definitely familiar with the hospital’s physical rehabilitation techniques. Marissa first worked at DRES as a doctoral student, but now teaches disability studies, community health and entrepreneurship. She’s also a cofounder of Intelliwheels, a local startup focusing on developing wheelchair technology such as ergonomic handrim grips and lighter wheels.
An athletic trainer for wheelchair athletes, Adam was out of town at a wheelchair basketball tournament when Marissa sent in the final application to adopt Daisy through the Guardian Angel Basset Rescue organization. And in the four months since the Sieros adopted Daisy, they said they see parallels to their own work at the U. of I.
One of Daisy’s rehabilitation exercises involves a water treadmill at the hospital, where buoyancy helps alleviate some of Daisy’s weight and makes it easier for her to try walking. For humans, a similar type of rehabilitation may involve assisted walking using a harness for greater support instead of water. There is also aquatic therapy for people and even large animals.
The best way for Daisy to improve the strength in her back legs is to practice walking, Knap said, until they no longer see improvement. The Sieros said Daisy went through a pretty intensive month of rehab, but now only needs to go to the hospital for rehabilitation treatment once a week. At home, Marissa and Adam work with Daisy on balancing exercises and other rehabilitation techniques like massage.
“Her spinal cord recovery is not ‘by the book’ and we really don't know if she will continue to improve, but we are using the practice makes perfect approach,” Knap said.
Many people look at individuals and think they’re sick, Marissa said, when they’re not. Daisy is perfectly healthy, she said.
“So many people just put their animals down when there’s a disability or a perceived inconvenience,” Marissa said.
Despite the progress that’s been made, there are even misconceptions about the services DRES provides for students with disabilities, Adam said. Not all disabilities are physical, he explained, adding that the U. of I. facility also provides academic support and resources for overall student wellness.
“We get emails every week from students who are using the services,” Adam said. “It’s thousands of students who are coming through our building to use our services and it’s not just athletes.”
Even adopting Daisy has made Marissa think differently about disability, she said.
“Though Adam and I work with people with disabilities all the time, we even had to challenge our own idea of what we can expect of her,” she said.
One thing the Sieros know to expect of Daisy: the extremely outgoing basset hound will make a thousand new friends at upcoming Illinois football tailgates.
“I sometimes think she has more friends than we do,” Marissa said.