Ryan Frye was like most graduating high school students in 2005 – ready to start the next chapter in his life. The Blairsville, Pa. native was looking forward to full-time work on his family’s farm, RDR Farms, started by his grandfather in 1978. The farm 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.
Ryan initially had the ability to move his legs and was working on strengthening. However, 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 adjusted 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 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 2015, Ryan met with Abbie Spackman, AgrAbility PA Project Assistant, 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 affecting his upper body, mainly his shoulders. On days when he could not do this, his mom or dad would sling him over their shoulders to move him. He also needed a more durable wheelchair and a lift to put his wheelchair into his utility vehicle.
“I was really impressed by all of the things he was doing on his farm. He had hand controls on his equipment and made other adjustments on his own because he was determined to keep farming,” said Abbie. “We had to address a few safety concerns and look at how he could protect his shoulders and arms for the future. A large portion of the farm evaluation focused on preventing secondary injury.”
The answer came in the form of a few pieces of equipment funded by OVR earlier this year. Ryan received a flatbed truck lift from Life Essentials. 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 or hitch-receiver. Ryan is able to transfer directly across from a driver’s seat to a tractor seat using a wireless remote. The lift operates with a hydraulic lift pump for the up and down motion, and 12-volt gear motors for the arm motion. It has a reach of 14 ft. and can go 12 ft. in the air.
“It does numerous things, not just access to the tractors, but it will also pick my wheelchair up and stow it in the bed,” said Ryan. “Being able to do this on my own, independent from the assistance of my parents is unbelievable.”
Ryan also received an Action Trackstander, which is a power wheelchair on rubber tracks that allows him greater access to the barns, his workshop, and the rugged terrain around the farm. The chair – painted in a green and brown camouflage – converts to a standing position with electronic hand controls. This allows him to work on equipment and projects that require the need to stand. The broad and diverse functionality of this type of chair allows Ryan to work productively and efficiently around the farm – but it has also restored his freedom and independence, which he says is “a priceless feeling to be able to do most of the things I used to be able to do around the farm. My world has opened back up.”
“Ryan is an inspiring young man, and knowing that we have farmers like him producing our food is tremendously encouraging,” said Abbie.
Ryan is grateful for the support and resources provided by AgrAbility PA and OVR. Ryan and his family are currently converting their dairy farm into a beef and grain operation. One of the first tests of Ryan’s Action Trackstander came when he and his dad pulled 4,000 ft. of wire fencing in two days.
“It ran all day – no issues. It kept up with me,” he laughed.
Ryan’s health has been good and his shoulder pain has drastically subsided since using the new equipment. He is looking forward to expanding the business. Truth be told, the 30 year old cannot imagine his life if he were not working on the farm.
“It’s in my blood. It’s where I’m going to stay.”