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The overcomers

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.

AgrAbility does not provide direct funds or equipment, but assistance is available from its partners and state departments of vocational rehabilitation.

In 1986, BNG, with support from Successful Farming magazine, published the first Agricultural Tools, Equipment, Machinery & Buildings for Farmers & Ranchers with Disabilities, a three-ring binder with 550 assistive-technology solutions. By 2004, the update was on a CD.

“The binder limited us to 1,000 copies,” says Paul Jones, National AgrAbility project manager, Breaking New Ground. “But we distributed 15,000 CDs.”

The National AgrAbility Project created an assistive technology product database in 2011. “We get over 100,000 hits per month on,” Jones says. “Eight of our top 10 pages relate to the database.”

“We run across new products all the time,” he says. “Many weren't designed for people with disabilities, but they're labor-saving and convenient.”


Other producers need major modifications. David Diehl, East Helena, Montana, was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition in 1991, followed by multiple sclerosis in 1998. With the help of his brother, son, and wife, the 56-year-old is involved in their 7,000-acre ranch.

He uses an EasyStand StrapStand to lift from his wheelchair and to stand ( His iPad helps compensate for vision loss. 

Diehl checks cattle on an ATV with hand controls. A handcycle (like a bike, but pedaled with the arms) helps to maintain his upper body strength.

But secondary injuries are a concern. “If you have a disability, it's easy to re-injure yourself,” Jones says. “Our assistive-technology products are evaluated for the potential of a secondary injury.”

Odens agrees. “I have to be careful not to injure myself again,” he says. “When I'm fatigued, I'm more clumsy.”

Changing behavior is key

An aging farm population with limited health care access exacerbates the issue of workplace hazards. Arthritis affects about one third of farm operators, ranking it as the top cause of disability.

“Not all of these individuals would be considered to have a significant life function impaired by disability,” Jones says. “We serve a range of people not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

A few years ago, the National AgrAbility Project added an ergonomist to its staff. “Technology isn't the only solution,” Jones says. “It's also knowing the best work practices to avoid injuries.”

Preventing disabilities is easier than retrofitting equipment to accommodate them. Harmful exposures begin early in farm life. Changing behavior in the next generation is key.

Carolyn Sheridan, AgriSafe Network clinical director and Spencer (Iowa) Hospital AgriSafe director, has screened Iowa Lakes Community College ag students since 1994. “We've found upper respiratory signs and symptoms from farming,” she says. This year, the educational and screening program is expanding to ag students at other universities.


The Arthritis Foundation of Indiana and the National AgrAbility Project are reaching out to high school students to teach them proper body mechanics to help avoid joint replacements later in life.

Outreach is broader

Bill Field, Purdue University professor, is a driving force behind the National AgrAbility Project. “At first we focused on getting farmers up on a tractor or combine,” he says. “We know today they don't need just a tractor lift or hand controls. They need a support group.”

Jones agrees. “We're making a concerted effort to reach new groups, including farmers with arthritis or behavioral health issues, veterans, and farm workers.”

Field is encouraged by a growing recognition of the need. “AgrAbility has survived efforts to squeeze it from the farm bill,” he says. “It's in the president's budget for the first time in 20 years.”

He cites strong backing from Iowa Senators Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley, and House Ag Committee Chair Frank Lucas. “They realize rural America is underserved when it comes to rehabilitation, and this is one effort to bridge the gap,” he says. Farmers without a state project receive limited help from the National AgrAbility Project. “I see it as part of the land-grant mission,” Field says.

Lee Kayhart had a 100-cow dairy in 1984 when he was entangled in a power take-off. The Addison, Vermont, farmer, lost both arms. But he's an overcomer. The 62-year-old has parachuted from a plane and bicycled coast-to-coast with his wife, Pat.

“Life isn't perfect,” he says. “But it's possible to have a fun, satisfying life and fulfill your dreams.” Recently he and Pat sold their 600-head herd to their sons. “I'm blessed with a remarkable wife and family,” he says. “God never gives us more than we can handle. When I lost my arms, I had to learn to farm with my head.”

From Combat To Crops

When Garrett Dwyer returned from Ramadi, Iraq, the former Marine knew he needed technical and business skills to rejoin the family ranch near Bartlett, Nebraska.

While attending Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in 2009, he helped launch Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots (, a program offering help writing business plans and securing low-interest loans. “Up to 45% of today's military are rural,” he says. “Returning veterans are an untapped source.”

When they return, jobs and retraining options are limited. Many are disabled. An Associated Press survey shows that Iraq/Afghanistan veterans file more than twice the disability claims of Gulf War vets.

“AgrAbility can help fill a need in rural communities,” says Kerri Ebert, Kansas AgrAbility. “Self-employment in farming may be a good option.” The National AgrAbility Project held a veterans workshop in New York state earlier this year. Indiana AgrAbility has one November 7-8 at Purdue University.

Kansas AgrAbility, The Center for Rural Affairs, Kansas Farmers Union, and the Farmer-Veteran Coalition recently hosted farm tours for 26 veterans.

Easter Seals Iowa's Rural Solutions also offers help. “For five years, we've increased outreach for veterans to grow local food,” says Tracy Keninger, director. “The crops are labor-intensive but less mechanized.”

Michael Simester, a Muscatine, Iowa, veteran, has a 10-acre vegetable farm. He relies on a tractor scooter and other assistive devices. “Michael's reaction time is impacted by traumatic brain injury,” Keninger says. “It's unsafe to use powerful equipment. Growing produce is a better match.” Last fall, he donated 100 dozen eggs to a local food bank.


Low- to High-tech toolbox

As many as 900 assistive-technology products are listed on the National AgrAbility Project's database. “Another 200 are waiting in the queue for approval,” says Paul Jones, National AgrAbility Project manager, Breaking New Ground Resource Center, Purdue University.

The database features descriptions, photos if available, as well as contact information for each product. It also includes many video clips demonstrating use of the equipment and devices.

Showcased products are both low-tech and high-tech, and they offer adaptive solutions for machinery, farm shops, and handling livestock. Most of the products on the database are manufactured by companies; others are ideas submitted by farmers.

“Farmers are pretty ingenious,”Jones says. “They're always coming up with ideas for devices. Manufacturers have their own safety standards. The homemade products are evaluated by a committee who considers a potential risk of secondary injuries.”

Farmers can search the Toolbox assistive-technology database to discover designs and ideas, as well as browse for suggestions and techniques.


The products range from the simple to the sublime, including a wireless automatic control system for ag irrigation applications that is activated from the farm office or a laptop computer, as well as remote video cameras allowing farmers to check calving progress.

Farmers with vision or back impairments will appreciate using a gooseneck-trailer hitch with a guide that makes it easier to align it over the fifth-wheel hitch in the bed of a pickup truck.

The Toolbox database also encompasses assistive technology for visual and hearing impairments, as well as ways to make a home or rural church more accessible.

The top photo at right shows a SuperStand Stand-up Wheelchair that helps individuals who have a spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, or stroke stand up for limited periods, using hydraulic-cylinder activation.

Chair lifts from Life Essentials, Brookston, Indiana, shown in the middle photo, are available for use on a range of sizes and models of tractors and other heavy equipment.

Combine and tractor steps often pose the risk of falls, as well as added stress on joints from frequent jumps to the ground. The add-on tractor steps, shown in the bottom photo, make climbing in or out of a cab easier and safer.

The Toolbox online database was the only website recognized by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers with a 2012 excellence-in-education award.

National AgrAbility Project partners include Goodwill Industries International, the Arthritis Foundation-Indiana Chapter, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 

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