Returning to work after a spinal-cord injury
By Brittany Martin
For many veterans, returning to work after a spinal-cord injury or other diagnosis is a major goal, and sometimes they need a helping hand. And sometimes that hand comes in the form of a farmhand.
On the second day of the Paralyzed Veterans of America Healthcare Summit + Expo in Dallas, Texas, one of the breakout sessions featured assistive technology and work site accommodations for veterans who want to work in agriculture.
Myrtice Atrice, PT, DPT, CLT, and Rebecca Brightwell, MBA, spoke about their work to help veterans do their jobs safely and efficiently.
Atrice said veterans who have completed their military service are “looking for the next mission.” It’s unknown how many veterans go into agriculture because it’s only been tracked since the 2016 census, and those numbers won’t be known until next year. However, Atrice says agricultural organizations have experienced an influx of veterans seeking services.
Two of those organizations are the Farmer Veteran Coalition and a national project called AgrAbility (agrability.org), to which both Atrice and Brightwell have provided their expertise.
“Veterans want to be of service, and they’re truly used to hard work,” Atrice said. “They can adapt to changing circumstances pretty quickly, they’ve had to do that. And they’re really looking to reconnect with society, and they really want to be busy and not be idle.”
Atrice said the average age of a farmer is 58, so it’s imperative that the next generation of farmers receives all the support possible.
Some unexpected support was seen during a pilot study Brightwell conducted with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The study consisted of 42 veterans, with 59% having some type of physical disability, including spinal-cord injuries. Brightwell said primarily Army veterans came to them wanting to get started in agricultural operations. In addition, 33% were post-9/11 veterans.
“As soon as veterans meet each other in these learning environments, they bond together,” Brightwell said. “So suddenly, they’re all working together. They’re their own support system. They’re helping each other on their farms. If one has bees and another wants to do bees, they’re helping each other. So I’ve never seen that kind of camaraderie going on in other projects I’ve worked on. It’s been real exciting to see that happen.”
Through AgrAbility, a free service funded by the USDA and NIFA that helps agriculture workers with disabilities and chronic health conditions to remain productive, contribute to their communities and succeed in rural America, veterans can receive assistive technology and work site assessments. Each AgrAbility project consists of a nonprofit and a land grant institution. AgrAbility began as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, and eight states were initially funded in 1991.
“We’re looking at making those farm tasks easier and appropriate for the disabilities that we’re seeing,” Atrice said. “And other things may be available through the project, such as business planning.”
Funding for assistive technology comes from a variety of sources and costs vary widely, Atrice said. Some more costly items can be purchased through Department of Veterans Affairs Vocational Rehabilitation departments, grants, loans and the individual farmer’s resources.
While farmers with mobility impairments sometimes make their own creative solutions to obstacles, such as one veteran who climbed a rope to get into his tractor, Brightwell said their job is to figure out a solution to operate more safely. For that particular veteran, a tractor lift needed to be purchased.
Simple solutions, such as adding automatic gates or an adjustable height, fence-on feeder to allow a farmer to feed animals without being inside the fence, often can improve accessibility and mobility.
“Every farmer is unique and their solutions are unique,” Brightwell said.
When it comes to work site assessments, AgrAbility staff are in tune with what hazards exist on a farm, and they work with farmers to create awareness of potential dangers and recommend solutions.
“Is the farmer safe from the animals they’re working with?” Atrice said. “Are there ladders and steps you have to worry about, and if so, how do you manage that? Is the area covered or not, so when there’s inclement weather, is the farmer going to be safe? Is there adequate lighting? Is there proper ventilation if they’re working in an enclosed area? Those kinds of things. Are they prepare for extremes in temperature … and being aware of entanglements in a tractor, the difference in the terrain … and some farmers will drive a tractor on the road. What potential hazard is that? The width of the tractor. If you’re going 20 miles an hour and someone’s zooming down the road at 50 or 60 and they’re upon you, you have to have the right flashers and cautions on your tractor on on the implements the tractor might be pulling so the person has more awareness and can stop in time.”
Secondary injury prevention is also discussed with farmers in the AgrAbility project.
“When you work on a farm, you do the same thing over and over and over, so there’s a lot of repetition,” Atrice said. “There’s micro-tears that happen, especially when you’re doing shoulder movement, you’re lifting, you’re carrying. We want to be aware of that, inform the farmer and try to think of ways to make the task easier.”
Seat cushions in tractors need to be retrofitted to protect the farmer against pressure ulcers, and the use of communication systems, such as walkie talkies, are encouraged in case a farmer’s cellphone battery runs out, Atrice said.
“From the standpoint of secondary injury prevention, we want to look at energy conservation, activity restriction, work simplification, time management, task arrangement, making sure it makes sense what they’re doing instead of doing it three times, they can do it one time and get it done,” Atrice said.
Overall, Brightwell said farmers simply need support, and there are a variety places veterans can turn for financial assistance if they have the desire to pursue an agricultural business.
“It’s not just the farmer getting back to work, it’s how much they put back in the community,” Brightwell said. “And our veterans are hiring other veterans, which is great.”