Addressing Farming Challenges with Assistive Technology Solutions

By Ellen S. Gibson

How We Work with Farmers: An Interview with Kelley Spencer

Kelley Spencer is the owner of Maine Assistive Technology Solutions. She provides assistive technology assessments and follow-up services for clients with cognitive and physical health challenges. Assistive technology (AT) is what we call the tools, equipment, apps, and techniques that we use to help us do our work. To understand ways that assistive technology can help farmers, I spoke with Kelley about her work with AgrAbility.

What is your background? What drew you to this line of work?

“I grew up on a second-generation poultry farm. Our home was also a foster home for adults with intellectual disabilities. We always had 3 to 4 adults living in our home as part of our family. Growing up teaching people, helping them adapt, and farming–makes you very creative. I remember one man who lived with us, he loved to stack wood. He would stack wood all day. It just made him so happy. His wood piles always fell over. My parents worked and worked with him to find ways to stack wood so it would stand up. I recall the day they figured out a way for him. He smiled twice as hard that day knowing he would only need to do the job once. The experiences on the farm and my background in occupational therapy are always behind the work I do. For 17 years I was an Independent Living Specialist at Alpha One. The whole focus of my work was to help people with disabilities live independently in their homes with a high quality of life for as long as possible. 

Sometimes the barriers and limitations you encounter are cognitive and sometimes they are physical. Is there such a thing as a typical assessment?

No. It is so individualized. . . One of the first things I look at is safety. People may have dementia, intellectual disabilities, or a traumatic brain injury (TBI). They will get confused and wander off. GPS technology is a big help with this. We put alarm systems on doors and windows in their homes. There are lots of safety issues in the bathroom. They can be addressed with grab bars and seats in the shower to help prevent falls. People often have equipment to help them walk, but it isn’t always fitted correctly. I will adjust mobility devices so that they are being used safely. There are so many scenarios in which AT can help people, it’s impossible to even begin to describe them all. ”

 It sounds like “assistive technology” can be either high tech or low tech.

“I always turn to low tech first if it can solve the problem. It’s less expensive and easier to use. It can be as simple as wearing crampons to keep people from falling on the ice. I work a lot with people with TBI. A Smartphone is an amazing tool. It’s really hard for someone with a TBI to learn new tasks. A Smartphone can help them learn independently, to do things in order and move from step one to step two. It helps with time management, which is a huge issue on farms. It supports memory by reminding people of what they need to do and when.”

 What is an important lesson you have learned from this work?

“When I began this work, my OT brain would go crazy with ideas. Quickly I realized that doesn’t work.  I have to prioritize what’s most important for that person. Figure out where they’re at, what they can handle. I have to find a way to make it simple to incorporate it into their lives. Once one’s initial needs are taken care of, something else jumps to the top. AT is a process.”

Do you have a particular area of specialty?  

Traumatic brain injury. I became very involved in this area after a family member acquired a brain injury in an accident. I was on Maine’s Acquired Brain Injury Advisory Council for eight years. During that time we helped bring the Brain Injury Association to Maine, we worked with the state to develop the Brain Injury Waiver Program and we created a training curriculum used by providers and direct support staff.”

What are some special needs of people with TBI?

“Impaired executive functioning. Processing, reasoning, problem-solving, poor self-awareness, etc. People will often not recognize they have new limitations or behaviors and feel as though there is nothing wrong and they can return to their old jobs or lives and not understand why they can’t. Before I come to meet with someone, I will find out who their family and supports are.  Who can we have at the assessment who understands them well?”

On-farm visits are not allowed right now because of the pandemic. You are using assistive technology to continue your work remotely. How does this change the assessment process?

“Being face-to-face is very, very important. It allows me to pick up on details of a person’s life and explore their environment.  I’ve just started doing assessments remotely, using telehealth. It’s a new process for me. It’s working okay. I’m developing my skills—I can use it to take a tour of their home. I can take it to the first level and establish priorities. I’m glad it’s an option because I can keep up with the demand—right now I’m booking out into June. I’m definitely looking forward to when I can go back on-farm and follow up in person.”


If you’re interested in learning more about how these services can help you, read: Maine AgrAbility Helps Put Bill Hayes Back on His Feet and Contact Us.