Ryan Frye was like most graduating high school students in 2005 – excited and ready to start the next chapter in his life. The Blairsville, Pa. native was looking forward to full-time work on his family’s dairy farm, started by his grandfather in 1978. The farm also grows small grains for cattle feed. The family dairy business was something that had encompassed Ryan’s whole life.
“I grew up on the farm. It’s always been a passion of mine, something I love,” said Ryan.
But a year later, in May 2006, Ryan experienced an unfortunate setback. While riding an ATV recreationally in an unfamiliar area, Ryan rode over a 35-ft. embankment. When he hit the bottom, the 600-pound vehicle came down on his back.
The incident resulted in a compression fracture at T12, and broke one of his metacarpals in his left hand. The T12 vertebra is located in middle of the back and sits just above the lumbar. Ryan underwent surgeries to repair the bone in his hand, and a back fusion surgery to fuse his spine from T9 to L2.
After back surgery, Ryan initially had the ability to move his legs and was working on strengthening. But another setback occurred within the first few weeks of recovery when the hematoma in his spine (from the original impact of the accident) started to bleed, damaging the nerves in his spinal cord. He lost all feeling from the waist down. Ryan spent the next several months undergoing rehabilitation, learning how to move with the aid of a wheelchair and how to move forward with his disability.
A few years passed, but Ryan was not idle. In 2007, he started creating his own hand controls for the tractors and utility vehicles, and made adjustments to his work around the farm. He was able to operate equipment and tend to some basic tasks. In 2012, Ryan was able to purchase the neighboring farm that borders his family’s property, which was a bright spot in working towards his future.
In 2014, Ryan was connected with PA’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), which is part of the PA Department of Labor and Industry. OVR provides vocational rehabilitation services to help people with disabilities. An OVR farm coordinator visited Ryan on the farm, and recommended a partnership with a program affiliated with Penn State University: AgrAbility for Pennsylvanians. Ryan was thrilled to learn that there was assistance available to help him access services and assistive technology specially needed to allow him to remain in farming.
In the summer of 2015, Ryan met with Abbie Spackman, AgrAbility Project Coordinator, who performed a farm assessment and talked with him about his obstacles on the farm. The biggest hurdle was Ryan’s access on the farm: getting into the tractors and traveling across the 800-acre farm. Ryan had been hoisting himself up to get into the tractors – a major safety concern and it was impacting his upper body, mainly his shoulders. He also needed a more durable wheelchair for use in the milking parlor and a lift to put his wheelchair into his utility vehicle.
The answer came in the form of a few pieces of equipment from OVR that Ryan will be receiving soon, like a flat-bed truck lift. It is a crane-type piece of equipment that sits in the corner of a truck bed and articulates around to allow access to the truck door, bed, and back to a trailer and hitch-receiver. Ryan will be able to transfer directly across to a tractor seat using a wireless remote.
“It is going to do numerous things, not just access to the tractors, but it will also pick my wheelchair up and stow it in the bed,” said Ryan.
Ryan will also receive an action trackchair, which is a power wheelchair on rubber tracks to give him access inside and outside of the barns given that the terrain around the farm is rough. The chair also raises to a standing position. A wheelchair lift for Ryan’s utility vehicle will also give him more access to areas of the farm and allow for safer travel. He expects to have the equipment in place by late winter.
Ryan couldn’t be more grateful to the AgrAbilty for Pennsylvanians Project and OVR for helping him with access to these resources. Truth be told, the 28-year old can’t imagine his life if he were not working on the farm.
“It’s in my blood. It’s where I’m going to stay.”
*Editor’s note: We look forward to sharing an update on Ryan in the Spring 2016 with his new equipment!