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.
Through its Purdue-based staff and website offering tools and resources, the program has 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 leverages not just technology but also a
deep concern for the well-being of farmers, farm families, and farming
“IPIA’s mission is to leverage knowledge, resources, and people 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 discussion 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.