Despite limited supports, Canadians with disabilities are finding ways to pursue their passions on the farm.
by John Loeppky
As we know, Canada’s farm population accounts for a small minority (less than 2 per cent) of the country’s total population, according to 2016 Statistics Canada data. And one subset of this workforce that is underrepresented is individuals with disabilities.
Kent Kozak is a grain farmer and wheelchair user from Ituna, Sask. One of the biggest barriers to returning to the farm was the cost of adaptive equipment, he says. Costs can reach upwards of $65,500 for specialized American equipment. Other costly items could include hand controls for regular vehicles, and specialized cushions for comfortable and safe seating arrangements.
The limited resources available to help farmers with these costs are typically geared towards individuals injured on the farm; Kozak was not.
His initial solution to this challenge? Homemade.
“For years, I was using a front-end loader and just sitting in it while my dad raised me up to the top of the combine steps. (Sometimes), I’d pull myself up, but it was hard on my upper body extremities and just unsafe,” Kozak says.
This month, we connect with farmers with disabilities to learn about the challenges these farmers faced in the industry and the resources available to help support them. Interviewees also share how they use their ingenuity to adapt.
Focus on collaboration
The Canadian Farmers with Disabilities Registry (CFWDR) is an organization that partners newly injured farmers with experienced mentors, says Bob Guest. He is the CFWDR chair and a Saskatchewan farmer with a disability.
“We try to match (newly injured farmers) up with somebody who has been through it already,” he says. These mentors “go out and help the (newly injured farmers) and help also with the particular things that the (mentor) has done with his farm to help make it easier for him to operate” his farm.
Kozak echoes the fact that mentorship was instrumental in his return to the farm.
“Try and find someone with a disability or someone in your shoes,” he says. “I reached out to a friend in Perdue, Sask. He was farming at the same time (and) we have the same type of injury.
“He sent me a lot of pictures and videos of the lifts he made himself and stuff he did to get back farming. So, I took that (information) into account.”
Adaption is the name of the game
The lack of adaptive equipment is not a new problem, Guest says.
“I grew up on a farm, basically, when you had to learn to do this stuff yourself. There wasn’t really anyone there to help you. You know, nobody had done a lot of that stuff,” he says.
Because he was four at the time of his injury, he “just grew up,” Guest says. Since he became injured at a young age, Guest knew no other way when it came to working on the farm. For a lot of other people, things were not quite as simple.
“Back then, when (farmers were) in the hospital, the doctors told them a lot of the time that they’d have to find a different line of work,” Guest explains.
“Once we started getting into lifts and things like that, it (became) quite feasible for a person who is badly injured to go back and continue working as a productive part of a farming operation.”
As some of the early lifts “were pretty crude,” farmers used their ingenuity to improve these tools.
“Some of the (early lifts) were basically just a sling with an electric winch on them and (farmers) just sat in the sling and it lifted them up,” Guest explains. “It’s a little bit on the scary side (to see) a guy lifted into a combine on just a sling and a winch.”
Kozak’s childhood friend built a system that involved a winch so that the now 29-year-old Kozak could continue farming after getting injured five years earlier. Later, Kozak permanently installed lift systems on some of his equipment.
For example, Kozak installed a boom-style lift that allows him more flexibility in terms of how he enters and exits his equipment.
Although Kozak has moved away from the homemade solutions, he still relies on his upper body strength to transfer himself manually for a lot of his equipment, he says.
With “half the equipment I have, I still transfer in onto the steps and I lift myself backwards into the equipment. So, the swather I transfer into. I transfer backwards into some of the two-wheel-drive tractors. When I’m working around equipment, like doing maintenance on the combines or the air drills … I do a lot of transferring on the ground.”
Today, most of the easily applied adaptations have to do with more traditional vehicles, like half-ton pickups, rather than combines. Other adaptions Guest has seen include switching which side the unit drives from for individuals with one hand, as well as units that are adapted so farmers with no arms can operate equipment with their feet.
And Manitoba Farmers with Disabilities, through the support of Farm Credit Canada, has created a document called an “Assistive Tools Kit.” This resource has photos and descriptions, submitted by local farmers, of equipment ranging from an indoor wheelchair lift to adapted garden trowels.
About 35 per cent of Canadians with “mild” disabilities are unemployed, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says.
Financial constraints are also an issue for the CFWDR, Guest says. He acknowledges the charity’s current limitations in terms of how many people it can support.
“At the present time, (we can’t assist) very many because we don’t have the funding. We’re trying to rebuild it again. When they (the federal government) cut a lot of the agricultural funding, the program was actually cut,” he says.
Over the past two years, Guest and his group have spoken to the federal standing committee on agriculture. Those meetings led to a grant from the Agriculture and Food Department to get the CFWDR “back up and running,” he says.
When Kozak was in the process of returning to work on the farm, one of the barriers he faced was the lack of access to funding because of his income level, he says.
Much of Saskatchewan’s income model for citizens with disabilities is either based in charities like Telemiracle or chronically underfunded social programs like the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability. Telemiracle is an annual telethon supported by the Kinsmen Foundation. The Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability, like similar programs in other provinces, severely limits the amount of assets a claimant can have.
More than just a physical change
In addition to the physical, legal, and societal barriers farmers with disabilities face, the mental roadblocks can be just as difficult, Guest says.
“The biggest thing is mentally, depression, even with the whole family. ... The mental state of the family, the blame, what they could have done differently, and what they should have done – things like that … can really tear a family apart,” he says.
These challenges are just another place where mentors can help lessen the load, Guest says.
Newly injured farmers can talk to their mentors about these feelings, he adds.
One of the challenges Kozak faced as he returned to work on the farm was feedback from individuals who questioned why he would not want to retrain for another industry.
“I had a lot of people say, ‘Oh, if I were you, I wouldn’t put my body through it. I couldn’t do what you do,’” he says. But “you know yourself. There’s nothing holding back someone with a disability. You can do absolutely anything you want – you just might have to do it a little differently.”
When asked what advice he would give a farmer who has recently become disabled, Kozak says the main objective should be to focus on your love of the work.
“Don’t worry about what others are going to think when they see you transferring into equipment, what it may look like,” he says. “Yeah, everybody probably thinks you’re struggling, but I wouldn’t change (my job) for the world.” BF