While looking back at when he started as Indiana AgrAbility’s rural rehabilitation specialist, Stephen J. Swain, ATP, let out a hearty laugh and said, “I really had no idea what I was getting into.”
Swain has family members with disabilities, but the world of assistive technology (AT) and the language of accessibility was foreign to him. Now he speaks it fluently.
“His technical knowledge and his ability to apply it to a wide variety of situations makes him invaluable to Hoosiers with disabilities,” said Wade Wingler, vice president at Easterseals Crossroads. He oversees the INDATA Project, a federally-funded statewide assistive technology program.
The INDATA Project partners with AgrAbility to serve farmers and other rural residents with disabilities throughout Indiana.
Earlier this month, INDATA surprised Swain with the AT Champion Award for his nearly 20 years of service in the assistive technology community.
Real assistance in rural settings
Swain joined Indiana AgrAbility in the summer of 2000 out of a desire to connect to the rural community. AgrAbility helps to eliminate, or at least minimize, obstacles that inhibit success in production agriculture or agriculture-related occupations.
The heart of Steve’s work involves visiting farmers with disabilities and opening their eyes to the tools available to them. He conducts disability and accessibility assessments of farms, homes and businesses, and then develops reports on what is needed in each case.
The challenge often lies in developing a trusting relationship in which he can help people overcome their specific obstacles.
“Farmers are very independent,” Swain said. “When they have difficulty doing something, they usually figure out a way to do it. They don’t want handouts.”
However, when they see the technology available, they’re filled with inspiration — much like Swain was when he started. “I had a vague idea of assistive technology before, but this job took me to a whole new level of what’s possible.”
Some examples of what Swain calls the “more dramatic forms” of assistive technology are the devices developed for farmers with spinal cord injuries. Lifting platforms can pick them up from their wheelchair and place them right in the driver’s seat of their tractor. Auto-steer devices help them conserve energy and work for longer periods of time out in the fields. Automatic hitching devices allow farmers to hook onto equipment and subsequently detach from it without leaving the seat of their vehicle.
But AgrAbility doesn’t just assist with conditions such as spinal cord injuries and amputations. The program also addresses other conditions such as arthritis, back impairments and behavioral health issues.