Keeping those with disabilties on the farm

Gloria Hafemeister

MADISON — Wisconsin’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which helps people with disabilities, including farmers, get and keep jobs, is dealing with changes brought about by the state Legislative Audit Bureau last December.

AAW and Easter Seals FARM staff gathered at the annual AgrAbility Advisory Council meeting in October in Madison (left to right): BACK, Brian Luck, UW-Department of Bio-Engineering and co-director of AAW; Paul Leverenz, vice president of FARM and Vocational Services at Easter Seals; T. Ellenbecker, rural rehabilitation specialist; Richard Straub, UW-Extension and AAW director; FRONT, Ami Cooper, rural rehab specialist; Abigail Jensen, outreach specialist; Paul Untiet, rural rehab specialist; Melba Brown, FARM coordinator and technical specialist; and Jeff Kratochwill, lead rural rehab specialist.

Delora Newton, DVR division administrator with the WI Department of Workforce Development, told the AgrAbility Advisory Council last week that the audit indicated the agency appropriately served program participants overall, but it also brought about changes for meeting federal requirements. A federal grant provides the agency with more than 78 percent of its funding, with the remainder from state funds.

Delora Newton

Newton assured AgrAbility the agency’s goal remains the same: to make everyone succeed, and that includes farmers with disabilities.

In the agricultural arena, she said DVR must ensure investments focus on DVR’s core mission to help farmers overcome barriers and continue farming by providing adaptive equipment, assistive technology, counseling and other things they need.

AgrAbility Advisory Council members expressed concern that some farmers are hesitant about asking for help because they have heard about the $10,000 limitation per client.

Newton said if there is a need, the DVR counselor can sign off to provide more funding. “If it goes over $10,000, it will need additional agency approval,” she said.

She pointed to other myths that sometimes keep farmers from seeking help, including the misconception that since changes were put in place to satisfy the Legislative audit, DVR no longer helps farmers.

“DVR still supports all workers, including farmers,” she said.

Newton said it is also only a myth that DVR steers farmers toward other industries.

“You’re the backbone of the state’s economy, and we want to help you survive,” she said.

While the Advisory Council expressed concerns that numbers of farmers applying to DVR for assistance are down, Newton said DVR still wants to help, and farmers should still come to them.

She sees increased opportunities to working with AgrAbility in the future, with Easter Seals providing the farm assessments and recommendations and DVR providing the modifications needed to keep the farmers farming.

Working with students

One new requirement is that DVR spend 15 percent of their available funds on students through earlier interventions and career planning.

DVR is working with Easter Seals on a pilot program that meets the requirements for focusing on youth.

She described the pilot career exploration program being done between DVR and Easter Seals in southwestern Wisconsin. The six-week program covers a variety of classes and topics, including identifying agricultural career opportunities, research, networking with potential employers and developing relationships with potential employers.

Funding an issue

The AAW Advisory Council is concerned about DVR’s continued support because DVR is the major funding source to help disabled farmers obtain the needed assistive technologies and modifications they need. AgrAbility provides the assessments but does not provide direct funding or equipment.

AAW receives funding of about $180,000 a year from the USDA, which helps pay for staff and program coordination. AAW has also received help from other grants such as, on the University of Wisconsin side, a grant to provide interns to work with the program.

Easter Seals FARM also received grants from the Otto Bremer and Greencheck Foundations.

Wisconsin’s AAW is one of 22 programs in the country but has by far been the most successful, according to program director Richard Straub in his annual report to the Council.

"We are what we are because of our partnerships," he said.

About 2,700 farmers have received assistance from AAW since it began in 1991.

In just this last year, there were 111 new clients, well beyond the organization’s goal of 74.  About 20 percent of the disabilities were caused by farm injuries, 20 percent from some other type of injury and about 60 percent from illness or degenerative problems.

Straub said this has been a long-term trend and noted the majority of those served are in dairy, with livestock and crops following.

Brian Luck, a professor in the UW-Madison Biological Systems Engineering Department and co-director of AAW, pointed to ways to engage students in helping with the program.

“If any of you have ideas for some type of assistive technology that might help on the farm, we have students who will design it,” Luck said.

AAW has also been working on beginning farmer programs and farm transition assistance, knowing these are issues that impact the future of young people on the farm as much as anything.

Each year, AAW hosts a summit in March, featuring speakers on topics of current interest to farmers, including farm succession plans and help for farmers with physical limitations.

The 2016 summit was co-hosted by Organic Valley at their office in Cashton. The 2017 summit will be hosted by the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield.