MSU helping disabled farmers: From wheelchair into tractor

Wendell Burkes was flat on his back for over a year, hardly able to speak or move. For Chuck Lenard, the simple act of entering his house had become a major production. When Tracy Browning's nose itched, he couldn't lift a finger to scratch it, or even shake his head in frustration.

All three men could have accepted their circumstances, perhaps wallowed in self-pity for a while, and no one would have blamed them. Instead, they found that science and technology could articulate what their arms and legs could not.

Fortunately, they didn't have to face the reconstruction of their lives alone. The collective effort of agricultural engineers, counselors and physical therapists provided Burkes, Lenard and others with most of the tools they needed to overcome their disabilities.

Today, Wendell Burkes tends to his farm in the hills around Noxapater, Miss. Chuck Lenard is bushhogging pasture with his 2002 Kubota tractor near Crystal Springs, Miss., and Browning digs out fish ponds and clears brush in Winona, Miss. (Watch for future articles in Delta Farm Press on how Burkes and Browning have overcome extreme disabilities).

Mississippi State University agricultural engineer Herb Willcutt coordinates the overall project and serves as one arm of the five-way partnership helping these rural Americans and others grounded by disabilities. TheAgrAbility Project, funded in part since 1992 by farm bill legislation, bridges the gap between traditional vocational rehabilitation, which serves the general public, and agricultural rehabilitation where products to aid in rehabilitation cannot always be purchased off-the-shelf.

Other partners are the TK Martin Center on the MSU campus, which helps disabled people cope with everyday skills such as driving; the Assistive Technology Division of Vocational Rehab, Jackson, Miss., which provides funds and staff for the state AgrAbility project; Methodist Rehab Center, Jackson, which specializes in orthotics and prosthetics for people with amputations; and Alcorn State University, which provides three staff persons to work with AgrAbility.

The ideal candidate for AgrAbility is a disabled Mississippian “who wants to continue working in agriculture in some way, whether that's on the tractor, or engaged in active farming,” Willcutt said. “Disabilities can be from degenerative disease like arthritis to amputations and spinal cord and brain injuries.”

For example, Wendell Burkes, who suffered a brain stem stroke which left him unable to get around without a walker, was provided gate openers, hitches and other items that allow him access to his tractors and pastures. Every morning he climbs on a four-wheeler to do haywork and tend cows on 300 acres.

AgrAbility helped a poultry house owner in Carthage, Miss., after he suffered a back injury that kept him from working. Vocational Rehab provided the poultry farmer with an off-the-shelf power “wheel barrow” to transport dead birds from the house.

“If there's anything available off-the-shelf, it's usually more economical than to try and build something,” Willcutt said. “For example, if you have a lower extremity impairment and you want to drive a tractor, all you might need is a tractor with hydrostat transmission that would not require much use of clutch or brakes.”

When off-the-shelf items are not available, Willcutt's ag engineering crew goes into action. “Designs can be fairly simple fixes. Sometimes all we do is add a step on a piece of equipment so an individual doesn't have to step as high to get on it.”

The construction of a standing platform lift — which lifts a standing person off the ground to a height where he or she can easily scoot over to the tractor seat, might cost less than $1,000 to build, according to Willcutt. “The lift can take you all the way up to a combine or cotton picker platform. You're limited only by the length of the stroke on the cylinder. The lift can be operated without the tractor engine running.”

Sometimes, off-the-shelf items are simply too expensive. For example, swing lifts which swing the operator from the ground or a pickup truck into the tractor seat without assistance can cost over $12,000.

MSU has become an official supplier for assistive technology, including low-cost swing lifts for persons with disabilities, through a contract with Vocational Rehab. The lifts can be built for around $2,500 by the college's ag engineering department.

A tractor swing lift funded through Vocational Rehab was provided to farmer Chuck Lenard, a retired communications worker, small farmer and commercial bushhogger, who fractured his thoracic spine in an automobile accident. Today, he's back to bushhogging for area farmers and is planting a garden.

Tracy Browning, a quadriplegic injured in a tree cutting accident while in the military, designed and built his own wheelchair platform with the help of his father, a metal worker. The platform can be attached to his tractor's 3-point hitch. From the platform, Browning operates all the tractor's controls with small movements of his hands. He first saw the design after a home visit by Willcutt.

“Every person has a different concept about how they want to function,” Willcutt said. “For example, Grover Greer of Anguilla, Miss., has a son, Jonathan, a victim of cerebral palsy, who uses a lift built in the tractor shed to gain access to a tractor.”

AgrAbility works with all who are disabled and want to work in agriculture, but most often has served part-time farmers and rural homeowners. Willcutt works with people ranging from just a few weeks to several years removed from an accident or illness, which means he has seen all stages of recovery.

“There is lot of denial initially, sometimes desperation and loss of desire to do anything. Once they get through those depression stages, they think they might be able to do a little something. Then they see that other people affected similarly have overcome their disabilities, and they get a little bit of fight back in them. Generally, many will progress to believe that the sky is the limit.”

The ultimate goal is for AgrAbility to help the disabled person become a wage earner or income producer again, according to Willcutt. “If we can spend $20,000 getting a person back as an income producer, it's far better for his self esteem and taxes paid than for him to sit around for the rest of his life as a nonproductive recipient of state or federal funds. We're looking for that person who has some drive, who wants to get out and do something and will not give up.”

AgrAbility is active in 26 states, many of which are associated with the state Easter Seals agency as the non-profit disability service organization. USDA funds for AgrAbility are directed through the Extension Service in each state. Extension is barred from using any funds for direct assistance. Its function as an AgrAbility Project partner is to implement educational programs to make medical and disability service personnel and rural Mississippians aware of AgrAbility's services, locate off-the-shelf products where available, or design and build products for the rehabilitation effort when the need arises.

For more information, contact Herb Willcutt, 662-325-7345, or [email protected].

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