Ohio farmer Bill Wilkins doesn’t want farmers who are paraplegic or quadriplegic to hate their wheelchairs.
“For a long time, I hated mine. I don’t want to see that happen to others who are in wheelchairs. I want them to love their wheelchairs,” he said. “I want them to think of their wheelchair as their friend.”
The Miami County farmer knows what he is talking about when he makes such a suggestion.
A life-long farmer, the 64-year-old Wilkins suffered a devastating injury in 1974 when a tractor he was working on fell on him, crushing his spine and leaving him a paraplegic.
But in his mind the injury did not destroy his life — it just changed it.
“Life is what you make of it. Thank God I am still alive and thank goodness I can still use my arms,” he says.
It is this attitude and resolve that has made him such an asset to the Ohio AgrAbility program. The program first helped him continue farming despite his disability, and now he serves its “Peer-to-Peer” program as a mentor and inspiration for other Ohio farmers who have suffered life-changing injuries or illness.
Wilkins and his wife, Shauna, farm 135 acres south of Troy. They grow corn and soybeans. The president of the Miami County Farm Bureau Federation, Wilkins is active in the community as well as serving on the state Farm Bureau policy advisory board.
In 2014 Wilkins was honored with the Spirit of Easter Seals Award from Easter Seals TriState for his work with the state’s AgrAbility program. In 2015, he and his wife were named the Miami Soil and Water Conservation District 2015 Cooperators of the Year.
Wilkins hasn’t just overcome his own disabilities to be an active member of the agriculture community, he has also been an invaluable mentor for other Ohio farmers who may have given up on farming — or life itself.
For Andy Bauer, Educational Program Coordinator with the Ohio State Extension AgrAbility program, Wilkins’ mentoring of two Allen County-area farmers who had all but given up after their confinement to wheelchairs serves as examples of how valuable the Miami County farmer is to the program.
Life is what you make it
“Bill is a wonderful advocate for AgrAbility. He realizes the advantages of the program and what it can do for people with disabilities,” said Bauer.
“The greatest thing about Bill is his desire to keep going. That’s the biggest thing I can use Bill for is when I find someone who feels that life is over, they have had this traumatic injury, they feel stuck in a chair and can’t do anything,” Bauer said.
“But then I have Bill talk to them a while and the next thing you know they are ready to go again.”
In the years after the accident, Wilkins has fought to maintain his independence and continue farming, which he was able to do for a number of years without help — until age took its toll.
He said he had heard about the AgrAbility program when it was started at Purdue in the 1990s. “But at that time I didn’t think I needed any help,” he said.
“When Ohio was awarded funding for its own project in 2009, I got involved. I felt at my age there are things I cannot do. And it was the idea of going out and talking to farmers with disabilities, helping them and giving them hope that I also liked,” he said.
The AgrAbility program first helped him, especially the need to lift himself up into vehicles and to do farm maintenance work around his home. While his home is handicapped accessible, a visit to his large barn gives an eye-opening look at an array of special devices attached to farm machinery aimed at helping him remain a viable farmer.
“AgrAbility had given me new hope,” he says.
After AgrAbility helped him, Wilkins then decided to wanted to help other farmers with disabilities cope with their injuries and their futures. This is the AgrAbility’s “Peer to Peer” program.
“The Peer to Peer program puts me in contact with people who have been injured. They may come here or I go to them. The first thing we do is talk about farming, that is always first. Then we talk about the disabilities. This ranges from people with MS, amputees, paraplegics and quadriplegics,” he said.
“They recognized that life isn’t over. I can tell them my story. The bottom line is — life is what you make it. It doesn’t have to end,” he said.
Bauer said this is what Wilkins brings to his mentoring — proof that life is not over, that they can still function.
“This is probably the biggest advantage we have with Bill,” Bauer said.
Meeting with farmers
“One client I had meet with Bill had basically given up on farming, and 45 minutes later he was ready to go back and farm,” Bauer said of the farmer who lived near Lima. This was last spring, and Bauer had received a call from the farmer’s social worker who said they had someone with a spinal injury who had given up on farming, “and basically given up on life.” Bauer said the man had wanted to get rid of his livestock and stop all farming.
Bauer said they met with the man at OSU Medical Center.
“When he first saw Bill,” Bauer said, “the look on his face was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ But after half an hour, Bill was able to explain to him about his life and that there is life after such an injury.”
He is still in farming today, Bauer said.
A few years ago, an Allen County farmer and his family visited Wilkins on his farm.
“He was a paraplegic, married, four kids, 7 to 14 years old,” Wilkins said.
Bauer added that the farmer, in his mid-30s, had “basically given up.”
“When the family came here I showed them all the things I do on the farm, and how I do them and how I am self-sufficient without anyone helping me. This family watched, and I think the attitude of the family, especially the 14-year-old son, went from ‘Dad, you can’t do,’ to ‘Dad, you can.’ It’s a mindset, a change of attitude,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins says he tells farmers — normally very independent people — they have to accept sometimes that they need help. He said he tells these farmers that they cannot view their wheelchair as something they hate.
“This is the wrong attitude. I used to hate my wheelchair, too. But like anything else, I explain to them that the wheelchair is a tool to help them. That it is their friend.”
Bauer said that he will continue using Wilkins whenever needed to work with other farmers with disabilities. “He is invaluable to us,” Bauer said.
A devastating farm accident
It was more than 40 years ago that Wilkins suffered his life-changing accident.
“My family has always been in farming. I grew up on my family farm. My grandfather rented about 200 acres of farmland near Mingo,” he said. “They were tenant farmers until about 1937 when he started buying his own land. Then in the early 1950s they moved to a third farm where I grew up. About 500 acres total land close together.”
Both his parents grew up on farms. They had beef cattle, horses, dairy cattle, pigs, crops — “We had everything back then.”
After graduating from West Liberty Salem High School in 1971, he went to the West Coast, including Los Angeles, to work in concrete and other jobs. But he returned a few years later to work on the farm in Champaign County.
He was 21. He remembers vividly what happened that day — Feb. 12, 1974.
“I was helping a neighbor fix a tractor when the chain broke holding up the tractor. It was a W-D45 Chalmers tractor,” he said. He was working beneath it when the chain broke and fell on him.
“This was back before we had paramedics. We only lived about 12 miles from the hospital but it took them about two hours to get to me. It happened almost at noon. The volunteer fire department came out… I was in shock, in and out of consciousness. They had already moved me. The fire volunteers came to put me on stretcher and I asked them if they had a backboard. They asked me why and I said because I can’t feel my legs. Of course, they shouldn’t have moved me,” he said.
“I told the guy at the time, ‘Just pray that I don’t have to be in a wheelchair the rest of my life.’” He said that at the time, all he knew of people in wheelchairs were elderly people, those who couldn’t take care of themselves and weren’t independent.
“If this had happened today I probably wouldn’t be paralyzed. It didn’t sever my spine. What did the damage was that one of the vertebrae was crushed and the area swelled and blood flow was cut off and without blood flow the tissue dies,” he said. He went into surgery at 6 p.m. that night, and it took about four hours. They did a bone fusion, removing one of the vertebrae to relieve pressure.
Wilkins was in intensive care about a week, then on a striker frame for six weeks and a body cast for eight weeks. He went from 180 to 140 pounds. He was hospitalized eight months, undergoing rehabilitation at the OSU Medical Center.
An independent life
Wilkins enrolled at OSU in college in 1975. He had his own mentor during rehab, who urged him not to worry about issues like having a leg bag or other aids. “It was a time of tough love,” he said. “I wanted to be independent, I wanted to be on my own. I was on Social Security disability and I could not wait to get off of that,” he said.
On the OSU campus, he would often pass by the OSU weightlifting gyms. “I would watch the weightlifters, and after a while, one of the weightlifters came out and asked if I wanted to come in and lift weights. It was the best thing in the world for me — another set of mentors helping me get stronger,” he said.
One evening, when coming home after being out with his friends, he said he went to one of his family’s 30-acre fields where there was a 100 hp tractor, with a platform on it. “So I thought, I think I can get on there. So I took some string and pulled myself up, pulled on my chair and tied it on. I then plowed the field that night. I took it slow at first. My dad didn’t know whether to be happy or mad at me. From then on I would do more things on the farm. I mowed hay, drove the bailer.”
“In the meantime I met Shauna,” he said.
Shauna Wilkins worked at Mercy Hospital in Springfield. Bill’s brother was injured in a motorcycle accident and was a patient there. Wilkins would go there to visit his brother after visiting hours so she met him there.
“His brother asked if I would be offended to go out with someone in a wheelchair. I said that would be fine, so he asked me out,” she said. They started dating in July 1977. He invited her to see his family farm on their first date. They were married July 8, 1978.
After the wedding they traveled west and he decided to finish his college education at Utah State. “I got my degree there in 1981 — the first student who graduated there in a wheelchair,” he said. They spent six years there.
Out of college, he said, “I just couldn’t get anyone to hire me. They wouldn’t say it, but I think they just didn’t think I could do the job,” he said. “I interviewed with everybody. I started master’s degree work then.” He did work as an assistant at the university for several years. But he still wanted to work closer to his family.
“I wanted to return to Ohio. I wanted our son to know his grandparents,” he said.
Engineering: Learning to help
He was hired by Farm Credit Services and returned to Ohio in 1986. He then became a branch manager in Troy. He had been there about six years and saw the farm for sale ad for a farm south of Troy. They moved into their present farm in 1993.
They farm part-time and now he does appraisal work. In 2003, he and a friend formed Consolidated Appraisal Services in Troy.
In addition to his work with the AgrAbility program, Wilkins has served as a learn lab of sorts for designing better ways to help the handicapped be self-sufficient.
“I work here with beginning engineering students from the University of Dayton. They come here because their curriculum is design concepts,” said Wilkins. “They work on projects to help people who are disabled. They come here to the farm and see what it is like and what I do and the way it is. I show them how I have to do things on the farm,” he said.
The engineering students then see what devices need to be designed that will assist someone without leg movement to operate a tractor, for example, or to spray the corn or soybean fields. Wilkins showed off just such a sprayer that was attached to a four-wheel John Deere Gator. “All of these devises help me a lot,” he said. One was a “stand up” wheelchair that essentially allows him to stand upright, making some work around the farm much easier. “It’s also good for circulation,” he added.
Wilkins gives a lot of credit for his attitude to his wife and family, which has always had a “can do” attitude.
“I would just challenge him,” Shauna chimed in.
“To me, success is not giving up. You have to do things a little at a time,” Wilkins said.
He said this is his philosophy: “Life is difficult at best. But when you dwell on the difficulties, you miss the best.”
Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.