Kevin Richards - Farming with a disability

July 2005
At first glance Kevin Richards doesnt seem disabled. As he rides up on the farm ATV he looks as fit, if not quite as tanned, as a typical young farmer.

Its when he reaches out to shake your hand without getting off the bike that you first realise there is something different about him. This hand has not shorn sheep, drenched cattle or dug a post hole since the 8th of August 1989.

That was the day Kevin lost the use of his legs, lost all feeling below the waist, and lost many of his dreams.

Not that he dwells on the downside of his situation. He has adapted well to being a paraplegic, channelling the determination he once used in running the farm into being as active as he can.

I watch as he uses his arms to lift one leg over the petrol tank and twists around into the side-saddle position. Reaching down, he locks the callipers around his knees into position, hoists himself up on crutches and we amble into the living room.

He sits on the sofa, ignoring the nearby wheelchair. The house has obviously been designed with the chair in mind a wide passage, plenty of space to get around furniture and into the kitchen. No doubt the bathroom caters for wheelchair access too, but more of that later.

We begin at the beginning - how did it happen?

I was doing a lambing beat on the ATV, looking for a lost lamb, and shot up a fairly steep slope, he recalls.

I was concentrating on finding the lamb when I hit a sheep rut on the hillside. I somersaulted and landed on my backside while the bike kept going down the hill.

I knew straight away that I was in big trouble. My legs were numb but my ribs were smashed and sore, and I had difficulty breathing. I knew I just had to wait, and that Dad would notice that I had not come back and would come looking for me.

It was several hours before Dad, and later an ambulance, arrived darkness and nearby pylons made it too risky for a helicopter and took him to hospital. A doctor examined him, tested his toes, and told him that he would never walk again. But he knew that already.

When people first meet me they think Poor bugger, he cant walk, but thats only just the surface. Thats what I thought too when it first happened, and I really didnt understand what I was in for, says Kevin.

Perhaps that was just as well. After four weeks in hospital surgeons put a steel plate in his back to clamp and immobilise his smashed vertebrae. Then he spent months in the Otara Spinal Unit rehabilitating and focusing on calliper walking.

It felt so good when I finally got into a wheelchair and had some mobility. It was also great to have the support of others in the same boat, and to realise how lucky I was to have the use of my arms, says Kevin.

However, wheelchairs have limitations.

In social situations you keep running into people, and youre always having to talk up at them. Its hard to know where to park it and you feel like you are in the way.

Right at the start he was told he would never walk again, but he would damned-well prove them wrong. Callipers would brace his legs so that he could stand, and Kevin was determined to get onto them as soon as possible. They would allow him easier access to more buildings and facilities. For three months he worked hard at the physiotherapy he needed, and finally was able to stand.

But that was just the beginning - learning to walk with them was a mission, he says.

The pushy achiever:

Kevin Richards always wanted to be a farmer. Like his dad he worked hard and pushed himself shearing six months of each year to boost his income.

I was always the noisy one, the achiever, and I told Dad that I wanted to run the farm and be boss, he says.

It was the hardest thing for me to lose my dream of running the family farm.

Thirteen years on Kevin is still letting that dream go and moving on.

Farmers are practical people, but when I was told that there was no chance of my walking again I didnt understand the difficulties I was getting into.

The reality is that a serious accident like mine affects your whole life. You cant walk, your plumbing is gone, and your earning power crashes. For a farmer your opportunities are severely limited, says Kevin.

That is an understatement! The reality for Kevin is that he has no sensation below the waist. He has to evacuate his bowels manually, and catheterise six times per day to urinate more often when he goes and has a few drinks with his mates.

I cant just relax and have a beer. Sometimes I misjudge how much I have drunk, and so I always take a spare pair of pants, he says with a grin.

Outings require planning. He needs to know whether there is wheelchair access to venues and toilets. Standing at the bar talking is no problem at the time, but because he has no feeling in his legs and buttocks he sometimes gets pressure sores from standing too long. He also suffers back pain, and has periodic bladder infections.

Fortunately Kevin has some very good mates who understand and make sure he is included in social or sports events.

These days the only time I feel really disabled is when I am on a beach buggy and have to be pushed into the water, but I have become hardened to it and Im determined not to miss out on anything, he says.

Insurance is poor compensation but it helps:

Kevin had no personal accident or income replacement insurance at the time of his accident, something that he now regrets. New Zealands Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) does offer some support to accident victims, but it is limited and there are some strange strings attached.

ACC pays only 80% of what you were earning before the accident, and because farmers usually pay themselves only a small wage they can end up getting very little. Its very important to cover yourself for loss of earnings in the event of a bad accident or illness. Even lump sum insurance is helpful in setting you up for the future, he says.

Being on compo creates an emotional dilemma for Kevin. He is grateful for its financial support but hates being on it.

In my darkest times I resent not being in control, and I find it insulting that every year I have to go my doctor for a medical certificate to say that I am still a paraplegic and need callipers. In 13 years Ive probably had 26 different case managers, and recently it took me two days to find one to approve new tyres for my wheelchair.

Having said that Kevin acknowledges that ACC paid for alterations to his house to make it suitable for him, and he has seen changes in the organisation over the years.

In 1989 they just put you in a wheelchair and gave you enough money to get by. In 2002 they encourage you to work to achieve something, he says.

Although the 130ha bull-finishing farm cant support him financially, Kevin takes part in day-to-day work as much as he can. Ironically, he uses a modified ATV to get around and shift cattle, and all the gates are set up so that he can operate them easily.

Kevin recognises the value of goal setting and getting out of a victim mindset. He is hard on himself, he says, and gets moody if he is not achieving.

The trouble is that some people still try to put the handbrake on and stop you from going for what you want to do."

But not everyone. His brother Craig, a skilled mechanic who came home to manage the farm after the accident, has altered a tractor for Kevins use. The modifications feature a hydraulic platform that lifts Kevin up to the seat, hand-operated brakes, and a push-button comfort clutch that ensures a smooth gear change.

This has been a boon to Kevin, and means he is able to drive a tractor and carry out more of the work that he enjoys.

Many of us would view Kevin Richards circumstances as disastrous. After all, through the worlds eyes he has lost his mobility, his job, his earning power and much of the freedom and dignity that most people take for granted.

However, his determination, unfailing support from family and friends, and three small miracles have enabled him to come to terms with his situation and make a success of it.

People have made the difference, and there are some very special people in Kevins life. The first is his wife, Shona. His girlfriend at the time of the accident, she chose to stick with him for better or for worse.

A courageous decision? Shona doesnt see it that way.

You dont stop loving someone just because he has had an accident. Basically he was still the same great guy that I knew before, she says.

In 1991 they married with the expectation that they would never have children of their own, and that adoption would be their best option.

However, time and technology were on their side. Six years ago they became involved in an in-vitro fertilisation programme that proved stunningly successful. Within a year the second very special person in Kevins life was born.

Now nearly six, Sophie was an unexpected bonus.

It was wonderful for us. We were so focused on supporting each other that when Sophie came along I wondered how our life would change. In fact she enriched our relationship, says Shona.

Sophies arrival certainly gave a lift to Kevins spirits.

Whenever I started to feel that life had been hard on me I would look at Sophie and feel so lucky. No matter how gloomy I was she was always able to cheer me up and stop me becoming self-absorbed, he says.

Sophie was such a success they decided to try again. This time conception took longer, but the final result was a double surprise twins!

Grace and Jack are now nine months old, and thriving. Sleep is a precious commodity in the Richards household at present but Shona and Kevin know that this phase will pass.

Says Kevin: The children have added a whole new dimension to our lives we have become a family.

Perhaps it is natural that, after the accident, doctors and counsellors would not want Kevin to set his expectations too high and risk disappointment. However, in hindsight he wishes that they had not been so discouraging.

I was told I would never walk with callipers, but I did. I was told that my mates and girlfriend would drift away, but they didnt. I was told that I could never have kids of my own, but now I have three. And I was told that I could never work again as a farmer and own land. Now I say Why not?

Kevin admits that he is not happy unless he has a challenge. In recent years he has faced one that terrifies many people public speaking. Initially he was asked by the ACC to talk about his experiences as part of a safety awareness programme. These days he speaks regularly to farmers groups, insurance professionals, and public meetings.

Insurance people tell me that a lot of paraplegics just sit at home and vegetate or play on the computer. Thats not me. I need contact with people, with animals and with farming, says Kevin.

I enjoy working on the home farm, but it isnt my own. Shona and I are looking towards getting about 50 acres and setting it up so I can run cattle on it my own way and make my own decisions.

So thats the next challenge. Soon Shona will start work again part time and Kevin will take on more speaking engagements to build up their capital.

Given his track record and determination, plus the love and support from family and friends, the chances of Kevins impossible dream of farm ownership becoming a reality are very good indeed.