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NRCS employees at a demonstration of adaptive equipment for farmers with disabilities

2023 NRCS-Michigan Diversity Day

NRCS-Michigan's 2023 Diversity Day events focused on people with disabilities. NRCS employees learned about the obstacles facing people with disabilities and two organizations providing services to help them overcome them.

- MI Civil Rights Advisory Committee

On Tuesday June 20, the Michigan Civil Rights Advisory Committee held their 2023 diversity day event in Holland and Grand Rapids. The day was focused on individuals with disabilities and had two parts: a farm tour featuring assistive technologies for farm equipment in the morning, and a presentation by local service dog group, Paws with a Cause, in the afternoon.

Doug Ver Hoeven – tour of farm in Holland

The farmer hosting the tour, Doug Ver Hoeven, worked with Michigan AgrAbility’s engineer, Ned Stoller, to design and engineer tools that allow traditional farm equipment to be adapted for wheelchair users. 

Doug was involved in a farm-related accident when he was just 16. While driving a piece of equipment down the road from one farm to another, a vehicle collided with him. This resulted in him being paralyzed from the waist down. The effects of that fateful day were overwhelming. 

“For a while, I stopped farming,” Ver Hoeven said. That was hard, because he had grown up on the property where his dad farmed before him. “But,” he said, “I’m an overcomer.” There’s one thing he said every farmer will say, and he agrees with: “When you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.” He’s continued to do so for nearly 40 years. 

Throughout the visit, Doug pointed out the adapted and modified tools he utilizes to aid in his farming. One critical enhancement that AgrAbility helped him acquire is the AgLeader GPS unit, which provides automatic steering for his large tractor. This has helped tremendously with minimizing strain on his shoulders. Using a wheelchair can often cause people to overcompensate with their arms and shoulders while completing tasks, sometimes leading to rotator cuff strain and injury. Having auto steer has helped decrease the stress on Doug’s shoulders and is helping keep him healthy and able to continue farming.

Awareness of limited mobility/ability to get in and out of tractors, sprayers, UTVs, mowers, etc. were considered when creating not only a safe environment to work in, but an ease of accessibility to perform tasks independently - which is so important among farmers and ranchers. Every piece of equipment is viewed and managed differently. Every grain bin hitch is important. Every time a farmer needs to get down from a piece of equipment to check the crop, or open a gate, or check an attachment is an additional step, and Doug has worked to implement tools and systems to minimize the number of times he has to transfer in and out of his equipment. The smallest thing, like a light that shows you when a seed box is running low, or an even simpler “sight window” cut into the seed box to allow for easy line-of-sight from a driver’s seat, limits the number of times Doug has to transfer from a piece of equipment back into the wheelchair. 

There are other health considerations beyond body strain as well. Limiting dirt and debris means a decreased risk of infection or other health-related problems that can come from long-term disabilities that rely on minimizing risks to health. Air quality, hygiene, and other concerns such as blood pressure, stress, and anxiety can only complicate a farmer’s ability to continue doing what they love. Other health-related considerations were things like temperature-controlled pole barns and enclosed tractor cabs (because spinal cord injuries impact the body’s ability to thermoregulate), easy hitch set ups, backup cameras, and foam markers on his custom-made row-crop sprayer.

Farming with disabilities also complicates things financially. Farming on its own can often leave a thin margin for profit, if any, and it’s difficult to predict how much might be left over for equipment modifications. Fortunately, AgrAbility has assisted Doug with implementing some lower cost solutions, and helping him secure some grant funding, but the cost of many of the modifications have come out of Doug’s own pocket. 
Doug’s struggle inspired him to create a non-profit, called Fulfilling Life Ministries, that helps other farmers with disabilities get the support that they need, whether it’s monetary or verbal. “It’s so important to encourage and support farmers that are struggling and in need,” Doug said. 

“There were definitely moments I thought of quitting,” he admitted. “The wheelchair controlled me for five years. Until finally I said, ‘No, wheelchair. I am going to control you.’” With his faithful dog, Maddie, in his lap, he showed us all how he has been doing just that.

AgrAbility works in partnership with Easterseals Michigan and MSU to provide assistance to farmers with disabilities or chronic health conditions, including PTSD, hearing or vision loss, and other disabilities. They serve farmers of all sizes, and in several states. For more information on AgrAbility, visit this website. Doug recommended this YouTube video for viewing – a female farmer in Indiana who lost an arm and a leg in a combine accident. Easterseals was also present, and talked about mental health for other farming communities. Find out more about them here. For other publications shared at the meeting, please feel free to contact Madeleine Cantu, MI Civil Rights Advisory Committee (CRAC) Chairperson, or Matt Swain, MI CRAC Disabilities Special Emphasis Program Manager.

Paws with a Cause – Becky and Zing at the Grand Rapids Area Office

The second half of Diversity Day was held in the Grand Rapids area office. Paws with a Cause (PAWS), a non-profit organization based out of Wayland that raises assistance dogs, gave a presentation to NRCS employees about services they provide to people with varying disabilities. 

Formerly known as Ears for the Deaf, the organization was created in 1985 and originally focused on training dogs to assist folks who were deaf, by identifying and responding to common sounds. Since its creation, the organization has broadened its mission and changed its name to Paws with a Cause. Paws breeds, raises, and trains assistance dogs to help children with autism, people who experience seizures, are deaf, or have various physically limiting disabilities or mobility issues.

Becky Canales, who presented to the NRCS attendees, is the client relations manager and has worked with the organization for 27 years. She brought her own dog, Zing, who is not an active assistant dog but that she personally trained to demonstrate a few simple tasks for the group.

If you are not a person with a physical--or otherwise debilitating--disability, you might not be aware of the everyday tasks that an assistance dog can be trained to complete. Things such as taking off your shoes and socks, picking up dropped items like keys or pill bottles, or opening freezer doors at the grocery store are all integral in helping a person maintain their independence when living with a disability. 

"A dog can help with putting on or taking off just about any item of clothing," Becky said. Indeed, Zing demonstrated how he could gently take the tab on the heel of Becky's shoe and remove it at her request. They can also help turn off and on lights, help people sit up or stand up, and can even in some circumstances activate machines that can call pre-programmed contacts in the case of an emergency. Some dogs that assist people with seizures and detect an oncoming event and can interrupt the behavior, thereby helping prevent it from escalating into a grand maul seizure.

In one case, PAWS helped devise an article of clothing that could be worn so that an assistant dog could help turn a mobility limited client over in bed. This eliminated the need for the client’s neighbor to come over and assist the client with turning. This helped not only address the concern of bed sores from not being able to turn over throughout the night, but also helped restore the client’s sense of independence since they no longer need to rely on their neighbor’s assistance.

Becky also shared the story of a child with autism who experienced severe distress during dental appointments and needed to be fully anesthetized. PAWS worked with the child and their family to match with a service dog. The dog was specifically trained to lay on top of the child, which could provide a comforting weight and decrease sensory overstimulation, helping the child remain calm. The child was later able to successfully get through a dental appointment without any anesthesia, with the beloved assistance dog on top of him. 

Each dog is trained individually for the specific disability they will be assisting with. The time to train a dog is extensive, Becky told us. "Depending on the type of assistant dog, and the disability that they are trained for, the length of time can vary," she said. For instance, for a hearing dog, it can be a 5-6 month “initial training” period, with the same length of time then spent in an in-home setting. Others can take longer. The dogs don't enter into specialized training until they are approximately 14 months old, so by the time the dog is placed with its person, the dog is about 2.5-3 years old.

The organization has its own breeding program, but not all the dogs they breed are fit to be assistance dogs. However, they've increased their success rate over the years by breeding for specific personality and physical traits. They train somewhere between 50 to 60 dogs per year and have a placement rate of about 92%. The breeds used range in all sizes, from Papillons to Standard Poodles. The most common breed is Retrievers that have a stocky build, which is a desired trait because they need to be able to assist people who might need physical support while doing things like getting up off the floor or walking.

PAWS breeds, trains, and places their dogs entirely free of charge to the customer. The only costs to the individual are ownership expenses such as food, routine veterinary care, and grooming services. The application process can be lengthy. They select applications once a year, and often have double the applicants than available dogs. However, they prioritize applications on an as-needed basis--people who had previously had a PAWS assistance dog, have priority over new applicants when their dog passes; this helps to provide continuous assistance to clients.

One of the things that was emphasized during the presentation was the differences between the types of trained dogs you might encounter – service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals. People often use these terms interchangeably, and there is often confusion around them, but the three types of dogs serve wildly different purposes and have different legal protections. 

  • Service (or assistance) dogs 
    • Extensively socialized and trained to perform specific tasks
    • Assist a single person with performing this tasks and day-to-day functions; the person relies on the dog to perform these tasks
    • Covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (allowed into businesses and housing even in there is a “no pets” policy)
  • Therapy dogs
    • Trained and socialized to provide emotional support and comfort to many people
    • Often used in public settings like schools, assisted living facilities, court systems, or after mass traumatic events
  • Emotional Support Animals (ESA)
    • Primary purpose is to provide emotional support for an individual
    • No specific training or socialization required
    • Allowed to live anywhere, even if there is a “no pets” policy, but may require a doctor’s note stating the animal is an ESA

If you or someone you know needs an assistant dog, please check the PAWS website. You can also assist in fostering PAWS puppies from their breeding program! Puppies are typically in foster from 8 weeks to 14 months of age (weaning to the start of training), with the goal of socialization (getting them used to all types of people, places, things, and situations). For further information, please feel free to contact your Civil Rights Advisory Committee Chairperson (CRAC) Madeleine Cantu, or Lexi Feutz, CRAC American Indian/Alaska Native Special Emphasis Program Manager.