Accessibility in Agriculture: AgrAbility provides hope

Accessibility in Agriculture: AgrAbility provides hope
May 15th, 2024 | Breanna Fanta Nebraska News Service

Most people can’t imagine not being able to do the things they love, and many never have to experience that. 

This was a reality for 61-year-old Kevin Daniels, a rancher from Norfolk, when he became paralyzed last April. 

Kevin grew up near Norfolk. He remembers warm summer days spent riding ponies as a child and following his dad around the feedlot. Kevin continued these passions as he got older. He found a love of cutting horses – the craft of separating a cow from a herd – and competing at horse shows. Today, he and his wife, Jacque, have been operating their own feedlot for more than 20 years. 

Having spent most of his life outdoors doing what he loves, Kevin was lost when suddenly he couldn’t. 

The couple vividly recalled April 26, 2023. It started as a normal day. Kevin was processing cattle and getting ready to castrate some bulls when he noticed a problem. 

“He said, ‘I just don’t have the strength in my hands for some reason,’” his wife Jacque said. 

They finished processing cattle for the day, went inside to eat dinner and then to bed.  

In the early morning hours, Kevin woke up unsettled.  

“Was just cramped up everywhere. My arms wouldn’t move. I told her, we need to probably go to the emergency room and see what the heck’s going on,” Kevin said.  

They arrived at the emergency room around 5:30 that morning. By noon, he was completely paralyzed from the neck down.  

“Each hour, I just watched him deteriorate more and more. All of a sudden, this wouldn’t move, and then it would go a little bit further,” Jacque said. 

Kevin lost movement in his hands, up through his shoulders, and eventually down to his feet.  

The Norfolk hospital ran tests but couldn’t figure out the cause. When the local neurologist came into the hospital the next day, April 27, she knew Kevin had Guillan-Barré, a condition where the immune system attacks and destroys nerves. The Norfolk doctors sent him to Omaha for specialized care.  

Kevin had damage to his tibial nerve, which runs from the leg up to the brain. Two and a half feet worth of nerves now need to be regrown. The Daniels said there was no ‘rhyme or reason’. It just happened.  

“It’s going to be a long haul,” Jacque said. “Ninety-eight percent of people recover 100%.”  

They don’t know how long it will take for Kevin to recover, but he is slowly gaining back movement and is regrowing nerves. 

Kevin was in the hospital from April to July 8 that summer. 

Being wheelchair-bound posed some concerns and difficulties with returning home and to work, but he was ready. He said he was determined to be on the move again. 

“He has gone nonstop. Ever since we got home, nothing has stopped him. We just figure out how to adapt,” Jacque said.  

They were still trying to figure out safe ways for how Kevin could get around the property though. The Daniels were overwhelmed with insurance, social security and other paperwork. 

“You’re trying to deal with all of this stuff, and I had nowhere to go, nowhere to start. When we finally visited with Emily, it was just like there was a weight lifted from my shoulders,” Jacque said.  

Emily Jacobson is the program manager for the Nebraska AgrAbility program. Since 1995, the program has provided resources to ag producers with disabilities or disabling conditions who could benefit from assistive technology.  

AgrAbility eliminated the question of whether Kevin could return to operations on the feedlot.  

Through the program, the Daniels have received a life essentials lift and a modified side-by-side.

The Daniels said AgrAbility was a blessing through technology and equipment.  

“We would not be where we are. He wouldn’t be able to do the things that he’s doing right now because we wouldn’t have the equipment he needs. For us, it’s been a godsend,” Jacque said. “It’s put us back to where we’re basically living our normal life. As normal as we can get with what is going on.”  

The side-by-side has been especially helpful for Kevin getting around the property. It has a modified sliding passenger seat that helps easily lift Kevin into the vehicle with help from Jacque and a small lift. 

“We put five to ten miles a day on it, driving around out through cattle pens. And I mean, we do that seven days a week with it,” Kevin said. “It’s amazing what they would do for you. It’s having that stuff so we can go and basically do anything.”

Jacobson said the program helps people stay in agriculture by showing that having a disability or disabling condition doesn’t define people’s capability to pursue it. 

“It doesn’t mean you have to give that up. It just means that we have to find a new way to make it happen so that you can continue doing it,” Jacobson said. “I want to provide hope to that farmer or rancher. I want them to know that their life isn’t over just because of an accident or injury or an illness. They can continue doing what they love.” 

Nebraska’s AgrAbility program is the result of the national USDA-funded AgrAbility program originating from the 1990 Farm Bill. Each state-level project is required to be a partnership between a land-grant university and a non-profit organization. Nebraska’s program partnership is between Nebraska Extension and Easterseals Nebraska. 

Every four years, state-level programs must apply to the national AgrAbility program to receive funding and continue operation. Nebraska’s program has received funding since it started. 

“We’ve been very lucky since 1995 to be awarded the grant every year, and we pray that it continues,” Jacobson said. 

AgrAbility operates by finding farmers and ranchers in need, completing farm assessments with them, and seeking assistive technology that best suits them, their condition and their operation during all points of the year.  

Since the start of the program, over 600 Nebraskans have been served. However, there are still others to be reached.  

“There’s over 10,000 farmers and ranchers in the state that have disabilities or disabling health conditions. So, we have a really far way to go to get all of those,” Jacobson said.  

AgrAbility sees people with a variety of conditions, from arthritis to back injuries to paralysis. Each client and case is different, bringing a new set of needs to be met, but the ending for all is the same. The relationships will remain well after a case is closed.  

“AgrAbility clients know that once you start with AgrAbility, you’re kind of like our little family. We do close those cases, but they always know that they can reach back out to us any time because they are family,” Jacobson said.  

The Daniels have since contacted AgrAbility again to apply for a specially made horse saddle for Kevin.

“Without farmers and ranchers in this state, we don’t have a lot of opportunities,” Jacobson said. 

This is how 29-year-old Aaron Bock feels. Bock is another AgrAbility client located near Beatrice. Bock said he feels it’s his responsibility to continue his family’s fourth-generation farm, especially as he has seen so many people leave the industry.

“I want to do the right thing, for the land, for the people around me, and just for the ag industry,” Bock said. “If it’s not going to be me, then who’s it going to be?” 

Bock is a Type 1 diabetic in-utero stroke survivor. The stroke happened while his mother was pregnant with him. As a result, he has right-side hemiparesis – weakness with the right side of his body.  

Since Bock grew up with this condition, he doesn’t notice any differences in his day-to-day abilities. He just adapts to do what he needs to.  

“I really don’t know what it would be like to have a strong right arm,” Bock said.  

When he was 18 months old, his parents were told he would never walk or talk. This was what the first neurologist told them. Another neurologist later assured them that their son would be fine.  

“There’s a lot of days that I wish I could just walk into that first neurologist’s office, if they’re still practicing and say, ‘Hey, look here, I’m walking in, I’m walking and talking and working,’” Bock said. 

Despite this condition, he doesn’t see himself as being any less capable of achieving regular, everyday tasks. It’s just been a matter of adapting.  

Through AgrAbility though, Bock has been able to succeed in ways he couldn’t before. 

“It changed my life completely with all the technology that they’ve provided me. I can get my everyday work done so much faster, so much easier, and physically done by myself,” Bock said. 

The program helped provide him with equipment such as a hydraulic chute, automatic overhead doors and hand tools.  

He said he’s grateful for what the program has done for him.  

“If it wasn’t for AgrAbility, it would have been a lot harder,” Bock said. “I definitely would not be where I’m at today without them.”  

For a program instilled in passion and hope, these stories speak to what accessibility in agriculture looks like. 

“Not just passion for agriculture, but passion for helping people stay in tune with agriculture,” Jacobson said.


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