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AgrAbility gets farmers back to work worldwide

To Bill Field, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, a man who suffers a head injury falling from a grain bin in Indiana is no different than a woman who loses a foot to snakebite near Bangkok. “They have the same mechanical needs,” he explains — “how to get to where they need to be and do the things they’ve always done.”

Field directs the National AgrAbility Project, a USDA-NIFA-sponsored program that helps farmers, ranchers and other agricultural workers with disabilities meet those needs. His work focuses on three main areas: the health and well-being of farm families; enhancing emergency response in rural communities; and helping farmers rehabilitate after they’ve experienced a disability. The last priority taps Field’s ongoing research on assistive technology in agricultural workplaces.

a man tries out an assistive device for climbing palm trees Bill Field tries out an assistive device for climbing palm trees in India. Field’s work with adaptive technologies has taken him all around the world.

Through its Purdue-based staff and website offering tools and resources, the program has a global reach. In 2019 AgrAbility’s website averaged 10,000 unique visitors a day who downloaded more than 880,000 pages during the year. Eighty hours of online instruction helps farmers and the rehabilitation professionals serving them to adapt to a wide variety of disabling conditions, from amputations and arthritis to cerebral palsy. A translator was recently added to increase the site’s global usefulness.

“The concept is to provide technical assistance through existing Extension networks,” Field says. “We receive inquiries daily from all over the world related to enhancing the performance of agricultural workers with disabilities.” In 2019, the office fielded calls and messages from 118 countries.

“As members of a global agricultural community, we share many things,” says Gerald Shively, director of International Programs in Agriculture at Purdue. “Among them, unfortunately, are physical disabilities and the obstacles that prevent individuals from leading full and productive lives. Bill’s efforts to address and overcome these challenges through AgrAbility leverage not just technology but also a deep concern for the well-being of farmers, farm families, and farming communities everywhere.

“IPIA’s mission is to leverage knowledge, resources, and people to achieve positive global impacts. Bill’s work is a shining example of how Purdue Agriculture is working to fulfill that mission.”

AgrAbility has taken Field to China, Thailand, South Korea, India, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, and Ukraine, among other countries. He has conducted workshops on adaptations in Sicily for people from the Middle East and provided expertise to AgrAbility for Africa and AgrAbility Ireland. Visitors from Japan, Uganda, Kenya, Brazil, Sweden, and other nations have come to Purdue to learn more about the program and adaptive technologies.

Field also has attended international landmine conferences. “Most landmine victims in the world today are farmers,” he says. He points to Laos, where 14,000 rural residents have lost one or both feet to landmines planted during the Vietnam War. AgrAbility has sent related resources to the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan.

In developing countries, AgrAbility focuses on making simple aids with indigenous materials. “Our website provides hundreds of solutions for getting work done, but we need more low-cost locally made solutions,” Field says.

He notes the success of Free Wheelchair Mission, which has distributed more than a million low-cost wheelchairs designed with locally available resources. When the organization gave out 800 wheelchairs in Trivandrum, India, Field was there to speak on the need for disability resources.

“What are all the adaptive aids you can make from a junked Toyota pickup truck?” he muses. “They’re all over the world. Think of all the parts and the ways you could use them.”

Disabled farmers worldwide share an eagerness to get back to work, Field says. “The farmers I work with don’t want disability benefits; they want to do something. It’s more difficult to sell the concept to bureaucrats, but we could take them to thousands of farms with farmers who are missing an arm or leg.”

Field discussed the needs of disabled farmers at a meeting in Italy in September 2019, which led to productive discussions with representatives from the World Health Organization, World Bank, and other agencies. He has been asked to participate in a workshop in Uganda in April 2020.

After more than 40 years spreading the AgrAbility message, Field hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for what the program has to offer: “I believe we have an incredible resource that could impact farm families around the world.”

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