Farming is hard work, but there are ways to prevent occupational disabilities

Did you know that jobs in food and agriculture account for 22 percent of Michigan’s employment?

Agriculture pumps more than $10.2 billion annually to the state’s economy. More than 300 commodities are produced in the Great Lakes state on a commercial basis. Michigan also leads nation in production of tart cherries, blueberries, dry beans, floriculture products (Easter lilies, geraniums, petunias, etc.) and cucumbers for pickles.

Some 923,000 workers statewide grow and harvest field crops, work at landscape nurseries, raise livestock, run dairies and raise poultry.

Several of the state’s largest farming operations are in Ottawa and Allegan counties, and many lakeshore area residents suffer from farming-related ailments and disabilities.

Agriculture is labor intensive and, sometimes, dangerous. Many jobs require repetitive motions that can cause inflammation and musculoskeletal problems.

Fortunately, ergonomics in agriculture is now in the spotlight, said Fadi Fathallah, a professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of California at Davis.

“Ergonomics uses the knowledge of human abilities and limitations (in designing work spaces, equipment and tasks),” Fathallah said. “The goal is to fit the job to the person, not the person to the job.”

Stooped postures, heavy lifting, vibration from heavy equipment, excessive noise and rapid hand work from cutting and clipping can take a toll on bodies over time, Fathallah said.

He described interventions – some simple, others complex – during a recent webinar.

Long handles and low-tech container lifters can cut bending and lifting injuries by half, Fathallah said.

Power clippers reduce the risk that landscape nursery workers will develop wrist problems. Few farmworkers who need carpal tunnel surgery on both wrists ever return to work, he said.

Many growers now require workers who do sorting tasks, like packing and grading, to wear aprons constructed with a special foam that muffles vibrations from the conveyer belt they inevitably lean against.

Wheeled prone working platforms pulled slowly forward through the field by a tractor as workers pick produce below relieve the neck and back pain that accompanies long intervals of stooped picking.

Adjustable harvesting platforms eliminate the need for fruit pickers to lift and lower heavy packing boxes. Unfortunately, many mature orchards were not planted with sufficient space around fruit trees to use these platforms, Fathallah said.

A machine has also been developed to eliminate the need for hand weeding. The machine is equipped with a global positioning system that defines each plant in the crop. Most everything else gets yanked.

One of the most successful inventions for avoiding farm-related disabilities, Fathallah said, are five-minute breaks taken hourly.

Short, frequent breaks help farmworkers’ bodies recover from physiological stresses better than one lunch hour, or half-hour in the middle of the day, he said.

Technology and other aids to help people "age in place"

Most people who have a choice prefer to remain in their own homes as they age and require more care.

No one wants to give up autonomy. Nursing facilities are expensive. Remaining in one's home as long as possible can be strategy for preserving one's estate.

Sometimes people with chronic and age-related disabilities become socially isolated when they choose to live independently. When it requires a lot of effort to get out, a person's friendships can shrink to the number of paid professionals who come in to give assistance.

A person's social needs may be better met in a nursing facility or retirement home, which can be akin to living in a college dorm.

But there are an ever growing number of devices -- some inexpensive, some expensive – which can help a person compensate for a loss of vision, hearing, mobility and fine motor skills.

Keys to whether these devices will allow a person to "age in place" often hinges on their mental acuity and willingness to learn new things -- or the acuity of a spouse or loved one sharing the home.

Safety and security

The newest fall detection devices do not require a button to be pushed for help to be summoned. This is an important feature for people with dementia or other cognitive difficulties who may not remember how to operate the technology.

A device called "Be Close" tracks a person's activities throughout the day, producing hard data a loved one or caregiver can monitor to see how many hours the individual is sleeping and whether they are being active enough to maintain good health.

Dementia patients with an inclination to wander can wear an ankle bracelet that electronically transmits their location -- a godsend if they were to become lost.

Environmental Accessibility

Ramps are easier for anyone who needs a mobility device -- even if it's just a cane.

Mini elevators provide accessibility with a smaller footprint, and they're finally becoming portable and more affordable. They must be operated from a concrete pad, however, which may be an issue for landlords.

Stepping over the tub lip -- or swinging one's legs over it from a seated position -- are the most common accident that happens at home. Of course, probability of slip-and-fall accidents increases when people are wet.

Swivel seats with a tracking apparatus that moves the seat to the middle of the tub without shower doors will help, although the legs will still have to be raised over the lift. These seats also do not submerge the person into the water, which can make it difficult to cleanse genitalia.

Tubs with a door remedy the step-over problem, but many people don't like feeling exposed while the water fills and drains.

Health and Wellness

Taking medications can become complex when a person has several prescriptions. There are a variety of medication reminder systems that help dispense pills and make it possible to monitor at a glance what meds were missed. Unfortunately, they are rarely covered by health insurance.

A simple yet effective one is a pillbox in which pills are compartmentalized into morning, noon, evening, and bedtime compartments for up to seven weeks at a time.

Wristwatches can be programmed (probably by a caregiver) to buzz when it's time to take medications. Electronic dispensaries be set to ration medication at the time the pills should be taken. That almost eliminates the prospect of someone becoming confused and overdosing.

Communication and Engagement

Cell phones are a safety feature because a person who remembers to carry it can always call 911. Simple phones with big buttons will be easiest to learn to use.

Many phones have accessibility features like sound amplification and display brightness, but an older person will probably need to be shown them -- and practice using them with a patient teacher -- before feeling confident to use these features on their own.

Pocket devices are available which allow people with hearing loss to hear their televisions without waking their neighbors.

People who are open to learning to use an iPad or other lightweight tablet computer are always glad they did. These devices keep news, information and entertainment within reach. Older readers who can use the reverse pinching gesture to enlarge type usually embrace e-books.

Communications technologies also help people stay in touch with friends and family. Most enjoy using email, Facebook, and video-conferencing applications like Skype -- although they may need help setting it up initially.

Keyboards with bigger buttons in contrasting colors are readily available for people with vision or neurological challenges. A computer mouse with a track ball may be easier for people with compromised fine motor skills to use.

Low-tech assists for independence

* Straps that make it possible to pull up socks without bending all the way over.

* Claw reachers can eliminate the need to stand on chair or climb a ladder.

* Electronic locators that beep to help find misplaced key rings (if left in or near the home).

* Jar openers

* Device mounted above the stove sounds an alert if a burner is left on or some food starts to burn.

* Lighted, hand-held magnifiers are useful for reading labels.

While assistive technology can be expensive there are loaning libraries in many communities.

Disability Network/Lakeshore has a variety of items to loan at it's Holland office. Call 616-396-5326 to find out if we have what you're looking for.  

Books focusing on a disability experience

Summer is prime time for reading, but you don’t have to slip the latest John Grisham or a bodice ripper into your beach bag.

There are a lot of great reads – fiction and nonfiction – about people with chronic or age-related disabilities.

Books help readers gain a sense of themselves and others. Understanding people with different challenges enriches a reader’s life.

I recently met book-lover Hanagarne in the pages of his memoir, The World’s Strongest Librarian.

Josh defies the stereotype of the sternly quiet, bejeweled spectacled, bunhead of a librarian.

He’s a hulking 6-foot-7 and so strong from power kettlebell lifting that he can easily rip the thick Salt Lake City phone book in half.

What makes Josh an improbable librarian is that he himself is “un-shushable.”

Josh has Tourette’s Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder characterized by involuntary physical and vocal tics. My only previous knowledge of Tourette’s came from the TV show “L.A. Law” in which a character with the disorder could not reign in his urge to swear and utter racial slurs.

Tourette’s seemed too bizarre to be true until I read The World’s Strongest Librarian and learned how Josh experiences it.

He’s a good sport about it. (What choice does he have?) He writes about his hooting baby owl sound. The slobbering dog sound. The finishing a round of wind sprints sound. His wind-rustling-through-a ghost town sound. The frog in his throat that triggered persistent throat clearing.

Then comes the sobering realization that Josh’s headfirst dive into strength training is a valiant attempt to master his involuntary tics.

What’s lifting a few hundred pounds to one who has been carrying much heavier impediments since childhood?

With humor and candor, Josh finds ways to break the shackles of other weighty issues: loneliness, geekiness, infertility, an inner spirituality at odds with the theology of the denomination in which everyone he loves remains blissfully affiliated.

This is a warts-and-all story told a guy who defies stereotypes – a power-lifting librarian whose literary crush is Fern, the farm girl who saved Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web.

There are many other good books that provide a window into the experience of living with a disability.

Here are a few novel suggestions that will deepen your understanding of aging or disability.

Comment to add your favorites.

  • Havana Heat by David Brock
  • The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.
  • Where the River Turns to Sky by Gregg Kleiner.
  • Icy Sparks by Gwen Rubio
  • Lottery by Patricia Wood.

Seeing eyeball to eyeball, through a smartphone

Picture this: Following an intense study session, Grand Valley State University student Juanita Lillie feels like kicking back and watching a favorite movie.

This, like many everyday activities, can be complicated for Juanita because she has a visual impairment.

First, she wants to be sure she really deserves that study break. How long was she really studying?

Second, which of the audio-described DVDs on her bookshelf is the movie she wants to pop into the player?

When Juanita needs a set of eyeballs, she picks up her iPhone.

There are mobile applications that leverage the camera on the phone and text-to-speech functionality to read the time on a clock and the title of the video. Some apps also have versions that run on Android and Windows mobile devices.

The newest such app is Be My Eyes, which connects people with visual impairments with sighted people who want to help in real time. Using the smartphone camera like a mirror, the sighted person can describe aloud where the person who is blind is pointing the device.

Since Be My Eyes debuted in January 2015, more than 190,000 sighted people, and more than 17,000 people with visual impairments worldwide, have downloaded the free app.

By April 1, the app had made possible 65,000 instances where people who are blind received real-time help from someone they didn’t know.

Developer of the app is an employee with a visual impairment at the Danish Blind Society. He recognized that momentarily “borrowing” a working pair of eyes through technology would significantly ease everyday challenges for people who are blind.

Juanita has used “Be My Eyes” to select food from her freezer that she wants to defrost, and to identify canned goods.

During the app’s first week, wait times for assistance often stretched to 15 minutes. Sometimes, over-eager helpers quiz her about her disability. Juanita, although grateful for the help, sometimes just needs to return to her cooking.

She suspects those annoyances will dissipate as Be My Eyes’ novelty fades.

“I have another app that I use most for reading printed text to me,” Juanita said, “but an advantage of Be My Eyes is there’s a person on the other end who can tell you how to position the camera so the type is visible.”

The fact that the app connects to a real volunteer could also be its downfall.

“You should be really careful where you’re pointing the camera,” Juanita said.

For example, using Be My Eyes to distinguish your bottles of shampoo and conditioner would not be wise if you’ve already disrobed for a shower.

Jeff Sykes, assistive technology coordinator at GVSU, predicts the greatest value of Be My Eyes will be realized when a user who is blind becomes lost in a parking lot or some other uniform environment. A real-time connection to someone who can read signposts and detect other visual markers can be critical in such situations.

The app could also be very useful if a person with a visual impairment was in a chaotic situation, and unable to determine from his or her other senses how to leave.

Sykes, who has sight, is a registered user of Be My Eyes but has not yet received an assistance call.

About 20 of GVSU’s 25,000 students have low- or no-vision. Sykes typically teaches those who do to use a mobile app called Tap TapSee.

People with vision impairments are often fiercely independent and reluctant to seek help even in small measures, Sykes said. Some connect with family and friends over mobile apps like Facetime and Skype if they’re in a bind, but hate interrupting again and again.

Sometimes a non-human alternative like Tap TapSee is preferred, Sykes said.

The user takes a photo with the phone, and Tap TapSee sends it from the camera roll to a server, which identifies it through object-recognition technology. Seconds later, the app audibly identifies the object.

The process works quick and well, as long as the user snaps the photo 8 to 12 inches from the object. (Set audible auto-focus alerts as a guide.)

Users say audio descriptions aren’t necessarily precise. The user is told there are “yellow flowers,” leaving her to wonder whether they’re daffodils, dahlias or dandelions.

“Good app, but it’s not free forever,” Sykes said.

Downloading Tap TapSee is free. After an initial 100 trial photos, users have to choose a subscription plan. (The user’s next 100 photos would be prepaid at $7.99. He or she could also get three months of unlimited usage for $24.99.)

Juanita said her hands-down favorite mobile app is KNFB, which loads all the functionality of a stand-alone reading machine into her multi-functional smartphone.

KNFB works similar to Tap TapSee in that character-recognition software identifies a photograph and instantly describes it using text-to-speech software.

As long as print in the photo is clear, the app works great, Juanita said. It doesn’t even need an Internet connection.

But KNFB, at $100, is pricey.

Be My Eyes is completely free open source software developed by a nonprofit organization and powered by volunteers.

It’ll be interesting to see whether it catches on with blind and sighted users.


How does the entertainment industry include people with disabilities?

It’s been said that movies reflect life in a way that’s truer than any other art form.

If so, people with disabilities must be riding a crest of popularity.

Did you notice that both “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” in leading role awards at the recent Oscars were presented to movie stars portraying people with disabilities?

Eddie Redmayne was fabulous as the amazing Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Redmayne described himself as “the custodian” of the award for Hawking, his family, and all people around the world battling the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Julianne Moore was magnificent in “Still Alice,” a professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease who struggles to stay connected with who she was as her cognitive abilities evaporate. The movie is based on the best-selling novel by Lisa Genova.

Improving the entertainment experience for people with disabilities was also the focus of a campaign launched via commercial during the 2015 Oscars.

The first-ever national advertisement by cable-giant Comcast promoted the company’s new talking guide that reads titles and selections aloud to help people with visual impairments surf through TV listings, program digital video recordings and browse video-on-demand options.

The 60-second ad directed viewers to a short documentary online about a sooooo sweet seven-year-old girl, Emily, who has been blind since birth, but loves watching the movie “The Wizard of Oz” nonetheless. See

In the documentary, “Emily’s Oz,” the girl describes how she imagines characters in the story look, and a cast and crew working to create Emily’s vision for viewers with sight.

If you haven’t seen “Emily’s Oz,” please watch. You’ll find yourself celebrating the diversity in a shared human experience.

A minute’s worth of TV advertising during the Academy Awards usually costs about $4 million, but Comcast officials said it hoped to inspire a national conversation about improving access to entertainment for people with disabilities.

In addition to helping the blind, the talking guide could be easier for senior citizens and people with reading disabilities to use, they said.

Features that help people with disabilities tend to be applicable, and acceptable, to able-bodied users, too. That’s the beauty of universal design.

Comcast will also be rolling out a voice-controlled remote later this year.’s cloud-based Fire TV streaming box also has a voice search option. DirecTV has a smartphone app that allows TV viewers to navigate its program guide by speaking.

Movies can be a powerful way to open eyes and change attitudes in popular culture. Evidence is the ReelAbilities Film and Arts Festivals, which are hosted by disability organizations in 15 cities nationwide, including Chicago, Cincinnati and Columbus. See

These festivals feature award-winning movies by and about people with disabilities. Don’t attend expecting to see Hollywood Blockbuster movies you can catch at a your local multiplex. The emphasis is on excellent independent films.

Let’s compile a list of good movies that fairly portray living with a chronic or age-related disability. (“Forrest Gump,” a terrific allegory, doesn’t really live up to the second requirement.)

We can add these movies to our watch lists on Amazon Prime and Netflix, or borrow them from the library.

Here are some favorites to get us started:

  • Children of a Lesser God (hearing)
  • Scent of a Woman (sight)
  • Soul Surfer (amputation)
  • I Am Sam (cognitive disability)
  • A Beautiful Mind (schizophrenia)
  • My Left Foot (cerebral palsy)
  • Rory O’Shea Was Here (cerebral palsy)
  • Iris (Alzheimer’s Disease)
  • Rain Man (autism spectrum)
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (autism spectrum)
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (aging)
  • Robot and Frank (aging)

Add your favorites in the comments section. And, if you think “Forrest Gump” deserves to be on the list, say that, too.