Idaho grower Tom Holm was injured in a bicycle accident when he was 13, resulting in a painful herniated disc in his lower back. Thirty-seven years and two surgeries later he still has pain but also works hard.
Last year he read an article about the Idaho AgrAbility Project which helps growers and ranchers with injuries and disabilities find ways to make their lifestyles easier and less painful.
He contacted the group and occupational therapist Janice Sergeant came to his assistance. After observing Holm's daily routine Sergeant suggested a seat cushion for his tractor and adding extensions for his lever controls.
Holm's story is one of the Project's successes and was featured in the National AgrAbility Project's spring 2008 newsletter.
"The best solutions are sometimes the simplest, though they may require looking at things within a wide new way. This can be especially true for people with disabilities," reads the introduction of the Idaho AgrAbility Project's pamphlet.
Simple solutions found through innovative approaches are just what the project is providing for growers in Idaho and what the National AgrAbility Project does across the country.
"Work shouldn't hurt," says Idaho AgrAbility project manager Kathy Griffin.
AgrAbility provides services to those whose disabilities are "physical, cognitive or illness related." Conditions addressed by AgrAbility include amputation, stoke, cancer, spinal cord, blindness, deafness and just the physical wear and tear that come from years of farming.
"Our main goal is to prevent secondary injury and keep (the grower) working," says Griffin.
AgrAbility provides no money or equipment, but rather education and contacts without cost to the grower. It helps growers help themselves to independently maintain their lifestyles.
On-site consultants assess problems and suggest solutions. Consultants make designs for assistive technology and suggest funding though avenues like vocational rehabilitation, if needed. Assistive technology is just one way AgrAbility helps disabled farmers.
One rancher in Salmon, Idaho, sustained a serious upper-back injury that made regular ranch duties unbearable. Idaho AgrAbility assisted by helping set up a computer where he handles all the management of his ranch. His family and ranch workers call him on cell phones if they find anything on the ranch needing his attention.
In 1990 Congress passed a farm bill allowing the USDA to issue grants for AgrAbility projects nationwide. The USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) division administers this project.
According to a 2007 press release, grants are usually $200,000 per year for up to four years. The grants are given to land-grant universities who partner with non-profit disability relief organizations to provide the AgrAbility program.
Currently 21 states including Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Virginia and Pennsylvania participate.
When AgrAbility first came about, Montana and Idaho shared a program. When the length of the grant ran out, it was not renewed by the USDA and the project ended.
In 2006, Tom Karsky of the University of Idaho Extension in Moscow partnered with United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) of Idaho to bring AgrAbility back to Idaho.
UCP has found ways to help people with disabilities by joining them with assistive technologies for years. Helping growers was a natural extension. "We just reached out to a group we hadn't worked with before," says Griffin.
The Idaho Assistive Technology Project also contributes by monitoring the list of qualified assistive technology consultants. Together the three organizations run the Idaho Agrability Project.
Awareness of Agrability has been slow starting. "We helped three farmers the first year, six the second and now we're in year three," says Griffin. "Farmers work all day, except in the winter, and we have a hard time getting out to them. Most contact has come from informal networking such as friends and family."
Griffin cites growers' independence as the biggest barrier. "Some people don't think they're disabled because they still work," she says.
In addition to assisting growers and ranchers, AgrAbility will also do consulting for their children. Griffin points out, "If the farmer has a child with a disability who wants to help around the farm, [Agrability] can help, whether it's designing a bike or modifying a four-wheeler."
Through further projects, peer-to-peer networking and promotion projects, the Idaho AgrAbility Project hopes to reach more people.
Whether it's bigger mirrors on a tractor, handheld PDAs, emotional peer-to-peer networking or connections to financial aid, Idaho AgrAbility continues to help growers and ranches do their jobs. Griffin says, "There are tools out there to help you keep farming. You don't have to quit just because you're hurt."
To contact the Idaho Agrability Project, call 888-289-3259 or visit www.idahoagrability.org. See www.agrabilityproject.org for information on AgrAbility projects outside of Idaho.