Brenna DeGeer’s lifelong, profound hearing loss has never held her back from pursuing her dream career as a horse trainer – in one sense, it’s even been a gift.
“I feel like it’s a contributing factor into the way I’m able to perceive horses, read them and be with them,” says the 33-year-old owner of DeGeer Stock Horses in LaPorte, where she also gives riding lessons.
But humans aren’t as intuitive as her beloved horses, and so the trickiest challenge for DeGeer is that she needs to be within 20 feet of her students in the arena to hear and instruct them. It’s hardly her first hurdle, so she’s pressed on with characteristic fortitude.
“You cry, sweat and bleed a lot, and you don’t listen to anybody who tells you that you can’t do it. You just keep going,” DeGeer says.
But this year she learned it doesn’t have to be that hard. “I had no idea the number of tools that are available and the help that’s out there. I didn’t even know AgrAbility existed until just a few months ago, and it’s already changed my life.”
Jerry Michel, a 55-year-old Atwood farmer, feels the same way about AgrAbility. At age 20, he was in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He tried a desk job for 15 years, but ultimately returned to his first love, farming. When a Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) employee first pulled up in his driveway in 1998, she saw him struggling to lift himself from his wheelchair into the tractor with a makeshift climbing harness attached to a 2,000- pound winch he and his friends had rigged to the top.
“She about had a fit,” he laughs, remembering the experience. The DVR employee connected Michel with the then-fledgling AgrAbility program to install a lift on his truck and adapt some of the irrigation equipment on his 160-acre farm. Now, all these years later, Michel is working with AgrAbility once again to get a lift for his new truck, as both the old one – and his shoulders – are shot.
“The problem with most farmers out here is they think, ‘Well, I’ve been doing it this way, I don’t want help,’ ” says Michel. “But I think it’s a wonderful thing. Otherwise I’d have to give up the farming end of it. At least this has the option of giving people a chance to stay involved even if they have limitations.”
Colorado AgrAbility is part of a nationwide network of U.S. Department of Agriculture projects to empower farmers and ranchers with disabilities. Colorado State University Extension and Goodwill Industries of Colorado work closely with the DVR to test and then recommend adaptive equipment and modifications. In DeGeer’s case, AgrAbility connected her with Simultalk for Equestrians, a wireless, two-way communication system that allows for conversation between instructors and students while on horseback.
As of August 2016, Colorado AgrAbility had worked with more than 600 farmers spanning a range of disabilities, including veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, amputees, and people with multiple sclerosis, macular degeneration, back pain and more.
“We have a young lad who has autism, and we developed a program that’s been very beneficial,” says Dr. Norm Dalsted, director of Colorado AgrAbility. “His family has chickens, and he raises eggs and delivers them to neighbors. That sounds minor but it has changed his life.”
Dalsted’s colleagues have started conducting quality-of-life surveys, and the results are unequivocally positive. “There are people who love farming, they love livestock, they love raising things,” Dalsted says. “And you want to create an environment where they can continue that endeavor.”
The program helps aging farmers as well. Those who are reaching their 70s or 80s and may need a hand, but don’t want to quit farming, can reach out to AgrAbility for assistance.