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The overcomers

CHERYL TEVIS Updated: 10/04/2012 @ 11:07am Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

When Oscar Pistorius crossed the finish line in last place in the 400-meter event at the 2012 Summer Olympics, his fans were elated.

Pistorius, a South African who runs on carbon fiber prosthetics, made history by becoming the first double amputee to compete. Simply finishing the race was a victory.

“I didn't grow up thinking I had a disability,” he says. “I grew up thinking I had different shoes.”

American farmers go to work daily in a highly hazardous occupation without attracting much fuss or fanfare. But more than 1 million individuals working in agriculture today have physical disabilities that affect their essential tasks, according to a study in the Journal of AgroMedicine.

Fortunately, thanks to cutting-edge assistive technology and an expanding database of resources, American farmers are able to stay in the game and go the distance. They are the overcomers.

Ryan Odens, a Little Rock, Iowa, farmer, was diagnosed as a quadriplegic after he rolled his pickup on August 11, 2000. The 23-year-old was paralyzed from the chest down, and doctors gave his family little hope that he would walk again.

Three years earlier, Odens' father had died from a heart attack at age 44. Odens had taken over the farm, along with his grandfather and his younger brother, Nick.

Against all odds, Odens took his first step in a warm-water therapy pool after three months at Craig Hospital in Denver. It was the third anniversary of his father's death. Odens hasn't retreated to the starting blocks since that day. He went from using a wheelchair to a walker to two crutches to one crutch with an arm brace. Today, the 35-year-old relies on a cane. He rides a John Deere Gator to check cattle and carry calves. A remote starter allows him to reach his pickup safely when he gets off a tractor in a field at night.

Odens has come a long way. His trainers include rehabilitation specialists at Easter Seals Iowa's Rural Solutions.

“Our goal is to help farmers like Ryan fulfill their dream of staying on the farm,” says Tracy Keninger, director of Easter Seals Iowa's Rural Solutions program.

The Iowa AgrAbility Project also was part of his early support team. Odens has obtained electric and hydraulic lifts for his tractor and combine. He and his brother have rebuilt cattle yards and alleyways, and added remote cattle gates.

Odens has traveled to more than 35 states on behalf of Easter Seals. “I've talked to a lot of farmers, and it's the ones who've been farming longest who find it harder to ask for help,” he says. “They love farming, and they're going to figure out a way to keep doing it. But it's not always safe. There are easier ways, using technology, to get work done today.”

Growing state resources

Two decades ago, disability advocates faced a major hurdle to raise awareness of access issues. By 1991, eight state AgrAbility Projects were funded by the 1990 Farm Bill to provide technical and educational services as well as on-farm assistance. Today there are 23 funded projects covering 25 states. Each program partners with a land-grant university and at least one nonprofit disability organization. The National AgrAbility Project, established in 1991 with USDA funding, is led by Purdue University's Breaking New Ground (BNG) Resource Center.

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