Alva Review-Courier -

By Holly Galbus

Paralysis doesn't keep Harmony man from doing his work


August 6, 2017

HARMONY, Minn. (AP) — When John Whalen began experiencing numbness in his legs nine years ago, he thought it might be due to an earlier back surgery.

However, tests showed a blockage and doctors recommended surgery to remove a tumor on his spinal cord, AgriNews reported .

Removal of the tumor, which was benign, did not reverse the paralysis. Doctors said he wouldn't walk again.

Physical therapy and time helped Whalen regain some movement in his thighs, but he cannot walk and spends much of his time in one of two wheelchairs.

Receiving that prognosis might have been a game changer for some, particularly for someone with a physically demanding occupation like John. He and his wife, Ellen, farm 120 acres near Harmony.

John said he never gave any thought to quitting farming. He didn't need to consider that, he said, because he and Ellen were offered support immediately. One resource was AgrAbility, an organization that assists agricultural workers navigate the challenges of a disability.

AgrAbility, created by the 1990 farm bill, aims to "enhance the quality of life for farmers, ranchers and other agricultural workers with disabilities."

While they don't provide direct funding for adaptive equipment and other services, they do assess an individual's needs and give recommendations for equipment and services.

AgrAbility's website ( is a storehouse of information, with webinars, informational resources and a "Toolbox Assistive Technology Database."

Whalen's assessment included recommendations for products that would assist him with his farm work. He has help from Ellen, a son who farms nearby, and members of the Amish community.

A lift, which helps Whalen move from his wheelchair and to his tractor, was essential. Once he is seated on the tractor, hand controls for the clutch and brake help him operate it without using his legs. Similar assists were added to his truck.

Quick-attach hinges allow Whalen to independently hookup his tractor to hay and grain wagons allow him to haul on his own.

"He's determined to do everything himself," Ellen said.

The Whalens agree it's good to know that help is there, should they need it.

"AgrAbility is a good place to get direction," John said. "They get you started. That's how I got my start."

Over the years, the Whalens have made connections with others dealing with similar circumstances. They look forward to AgrAbility's annual conference each March to connect with others and learn about other supports available to them.

"I enjoyed the focus of last year's conference, which was about caregiving for the caretaker," Ellen said.

Carol Fury-Fistman, CEO of EquipALife — AgrAbility is one of its programs — said AgrAbility was created to help individuals "from the fenceline to the kitchen."

"It might be the farmer that needs help or it might be someone in the family who is trying to cope with household concerns or even a mental health challenge," she said.

"Our main concern is the individual who is trying to overcome or remove a barrier, should seek our help. It is free."


Information from: Agri News,


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