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Identifying those in self-reliant group a big challenge

AgrAbility Project helps farming families with disabilities get back on the job

Without a doubt agriculture is one of the most dangerous of occupations, statistics show.

Nationally, 120,000 people a year get an agriculture-related injury that limits their ability to perform their work.And every year in Mississippi, 12 to 16 deaths are caused by tractors alone with another 10 to 12 caused by some other type of farming machinery, said Herb Wilcutt, an agriculture engineer with the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service (MCES). He also directs MCES’ Farm Safety program.

“Its a very unforgiving type of occupation once the accident occurs,” he said.

For Mississippi, the number of agriculture-related injuries are a little difficult to determine but suffice it to say they are significant, said Wilcutt, who is also project coordinator for the Mississippi AgrAbility Project, a joint effort between MCES and the Mississippi Easter Seals Society designed to help farmers and farming families with disabilities to function more easily in agriculture. The project began its second year of operation April 1.

Nationally, thanks to funding from Congress in the 1991 Farm Bill, the AgrAbility Project is now in 19 states. In the first four years of the national program, from 1991 through 1995, approximately 3,000 people were assisted by the AgrAbility Project in those states. Mississippi was one of the most recent states to join the program.

Through a number of sources, AgrAbility provides clients with a range of services, including mental health counseling, job skill assessments, site assessments of their work and home and referrals to sources who can help with special equipment, said Lisa Ketcham, a vocational rehabilitation counselor and case manager for the state AgrAbility Project.

Although the new program has no funds for the purchasing of equipment for clients, Wilcutt said through various sources, including trade associations and others, help is sometimes available to help defray the costs for job-related equipment. Other features of the AgrAbility Project include a peer support program that will match clients with similar experiences and injuries together, and a diverse and growing advisory board that includes representatives from a cross-section of agriculture.

Although the MCES, in general, and AgrAbility specifically, won’t turn anyone away who needs assistance, Wilcutt said the program is most beneficial “for those people who need a hand up and not a hand out.”

Ketcham said clients can include farmers, children of farmers, spouses and agriculture workers. Disabilities can include mental impairments, birth defects such as multiple sclerosis or other diseases, job-related injuries such as a lost limb or even carpel tunnel syndrome. Anything, Ketcham said, that deters a person from fulfilling their work goals.

“For people with a disability, work is very important to their self-esteem,” Ketcham said. “Not only does it provide income but it builds self-esteem.”

In making a case for the AgrAbility Project, Wilcutt said it was discovered that anywhere from 3%-5% of the total number of cases handled by the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services (MDRS) were agriculture related.

But identifying those who could benefit from the program is going to be a sizable task, admitted several persons. Not only will the rural nature of the state hinder in the identification process, said Wilcutt, but so will the simple nature of the clientele for which the program was created.

“They’re proud people,” he said, noting that people in agriculture tend to be very independent.

Said AgrAbility coordinator Emily Knight: “A lot of farmers are very resourceful. They find a way to get over their obstacles.”

John Embry, a supervisor with the state Department of Rehabilitation Services, a major resource for the AgrAbility Project, tends to agree with Wilcutt and Knight.

Embry said farmers who are injured or who are dealing with a disability of their own or in their family, don’t realize there is help available and simply learn to cope.

“They rely on their own group and struggle on through,” he said.

Despite the challenges of beginning a new program, hiring and training staff and identifying the potential client pool, Wilcutt said he considers the first year a success.

Through a wide range of resources, including county extension agents, rehabilitation counselors, physicians and others, approximately 15 cases were identified and opened in the first year, with disabilities including amputations, arthritis, cancer, cerebal palsy, spinal cord injury and visual impairments.

And although Wilcutt said he anticipates the AgrAbility Project adding another 25 to 30 cases over the next three years he doesn’t anticipate the program in Mississippi being as large as some had anticipated.

“I think I’m seeing what I expected, in terms of numbers,” he said. “But we still haven’t uncovered the large numbers of cases some expected.”

Over the next year, Wilcutt said he hopes to improve the referral network, see expanded funding for the project from the private sector, expand awareness of the program and continue to add to the peer and advisory groups.

A week-long training held two weeks ago between county agents, health care workers and rehab counselors was a substantial step towards meeting some of those goals. A major goal in the second year of the program, said Knight, is to get information to those in health care who first see injured farmers or who deal with disabilities so they can let farming families know they have choices.

“We want to let them know they don’t have to sell the farm or go work in an office,” she said. “We are here for them.”

For more information about the AgrAbility Project, call Emily Knight at (601) 325-1781.

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