URBANA, Ill. -- Herb Lange, a dairy farmer in Washington County, lost his leg below the knee as a young man, and battled an ill-fitting, heavy prosthesis for many years. When his insurance company told him they would do no more, Lange contacted AgrAbility Unlimited, a joint program of University of Illinois Extension and Easter Seals of Central Illinois.

AgrAbility assessed Lange's situation, and now, with the assistance of the state's Office of Rehabilitation Services, he has a new utility vehicle and a new, light-weight prosthesis.

For the last 15 years, AgrAbility has promoted independence in agriculture for people with disabilities. Lange is only one of the thousands of farmers who have benefited from the services provided by this innovative program since it began in 1991. But AgrAbility faces an uncertain future. Federal funding for the program will cease on April 1, 2006, and available monies will only allow for the support of the program until about July 1.

Bob Aherin, agricultural safety specialist at the U of I, is the project director of AgrAbility. Aherin has been with the project since its inception and feels strongly about the difference the program has made in the lives of many farmers.

"We've worked directly with hundreds of farm families to help them address all the work-related issues associated with a disability," said Aherin. "We look at their situation and develop a plan for them. In light of their disabilities, how can we help them continue to do the things they want to do?"

In addition to on-farm assessments, AgrAbility can advise on the appropriate and available modifications a farmer might need to make to his facility or equipment, and assist in obtaining financial assistance for modification costs.

Of course, not all disabilities are accident-related, said Aherin.

"We have a 'graying' population on the farm, so we address age-related issues as well, such as arthritis, heart problems, blood pressure and back problems," he pointed out. "We can do a lot of things to help farmers continue to be as efficient as possible on their farms."

AgrAbility provides family counseling and peer support, and even offers counseling to farmers who need to consider major changes in their farming operation or careers, if necessary.

"That doesn't happen very often," said Aherin, "because most of them want to stay on the farm, and we do everything we can to keep them there."

Aherin is especially pleased with the volunteer program that has developed over the last five years.

"We're considered a model state for volunteers," he noted. "In a small-budget program, I felt it was important to have a local presence. So we have more than 70 volunteers spread out over the state who are committed to promoting the program. They give small presentations, and they identify farmers who might be in need and refer them to us."

The quality of the program has been recognized by the Illinois State General Assembly, said Aherin.

"In 2005, a bi-partisan bill was passed unanimously by both houses of the legislature and signed by the Governor that established the Illinois AgrAbility Act," Aherin said. "The intent of the Act is to provide state support to assist in meeting the needs of Illinois farm people with disabilities of any nature."

However, no funding has been appropriated, said Aherin, "and the intent of the Act can't be achieved without appropriations."

Aherin hopes that will change in the very near future.

"We've done quite a bit, but there's an ongoing need," he concluded. "There are thousands more who can benefit from the services we provide."

For more information about AgrAbility Unlimited, visit www.agrabilityunlimited.org or call 1-800-500-7325, ext. 126.

SOURCE: News release from the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.