Amanda Marie Gipson
The Right to Repair: Wheelchairs, Tractors, and Community
The right to repair is fundamentally about trusting our farmers and ranchers to make decisions as informed professionals.
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When I was eleven, I heard yet another story about a farmer whose harvest was at risk because their tractor had broken down in the field. The only repairperson was working on a backlog. The famer’s only option was to sit on the waiting list as crops went to hell around them. I am sure that the community stepped up to help, but all the community support in the world couldn’t change the enduring reality of the equipment sitting in the field.
The men discussing it shook their heads with the kind of pity reserved for those times people spit on the floor or knock on wood. One said, “He’s probably going to have to pay out the ears for something he could have done himself if only he had the chance.”
“That’s the way of it,” another said, turning his attention to me, standing there with napkins I’d been sent to pass around. “Don’t ever buy equipment you can’t repair. Better something should be old and serviceable.”
My favorite tractors are the ones the bank has no claim over. Every big purchase I’ve ever made has been secondhand, right down to my flour mill and Bosch Mixer.
I credit a lot of how I think back to that one farming conversation I overheard. The right to repair impacts our livelihood and symbolizes so much. It shapes culture and community. Even knowing this, I was seduced by newness and innovation. It happened, but not in the way that farmer might have assumed then. When the day came that I bought something on the promise of hope, my life went sideways.
* * *
I hate my new wheelchair. That’s not an easy thing to admit. My wheelchair is often expressed as being part of—at the very least an extension of—my body. It is no easy thing to hate one’s body. To be stuck at home because you feel alien in a world already not meant for you.
Last Fall, I went for a wheelchair evaluation and left with the promise of exactly the chair I wanted: sleek, trim, and invisible beneath me. When Spring arrived and the chair was delivered to my front door, it hurt my hips and my back. It didn’t fit me or my life.
The expert opinion that the Ki Mobility chair was just what I needed did little to alter my experience. They told me I would adjust, that I needed to give it time. Even so, I had little choice but to use it. The joystick to my Invacare MyOn broke a few days prior. First, the plastic casing split apart around the seam that held together the top and the bottom part of the joystick, so I repaired it with electrical tape. The plastic, I told myself, was not suited to my lifestyle and I hoped the issue was merely cosmetic. A few days later, I plugged it in to the battery while in a parking lot and it didn’t work.
When the Ki arrived, I had no choice but to toss my cushion into the seat sling and try to make it work. I was hopeful, but cautious. I hadn’t remembered the MyOn hurting me when I got it, but ten years is a long time. Finally, the pain became too obvious and unrelenting to ignore.
I couldn’t live my life while suffering to the point that I could not eat or sleep. Red spots bloomed on my backside and back—the start of pressure sores—and strained my hips, hips already stressed by labral tears past the point of agony and well into the territory of inhumanity. To preserve my physical body enough to limp through the day, I began to use my MyOn in the house—broken, in manual mode—and use the Ki Mobility when I had to leave the house.
When I realized that I was looking for ways not to leave my house, and that I woke up panicking at the thought of the pain the Ki was going to cause when I couldn’t, I realized I had a problem. I took stock of my options. I needed help and didn’t know where to find it.
It occurred to me that I could deny the truth of what I knew and go along with the new chair, hoping against the obvious reality in my face or that I could self-advocate.
I wanted the rigid back for all the wrong reasons, even though I told myself then that I had reasonable, personal, and rational reasons. The truth is more complicated. My Invacare is wobbly, clunky, and a little out of place in a world full of glossy wheelchairs. I wanted the rigid back because I wanted to have what I perceived as a professional chair.
I rolled into the wheelchair evaluation appointment determined that I going to have a chair that mirrored every other wheelchair I see in professional spaces. As sleek as I could get it. Trim and neat and invisible, tucked under my knees. I ignored the fact that I lean to shift my weight and lean back some to avoid putting pressure on my shredded hip cartilage, never mind the fact that my ability to move and shift and lean freely is critical in my daily life. I don’t—even though I am a writer—sit at a desk all day.
My Invacare MyOn and I have a complicated relationship. I’ve been known—in the privacy of my own mind—to compare her big front casters to the sleek casters of her urban counterparts. Those urban chairs I see online pop easily up curbs. My chair is known to hold weight on the feet plates, far beyond what the manufacture suggests, and although the metal ones on the Ki are shiny and nice, the composite ones on my MyOn provide are secure in the wind, rain, and snow for both my booted feet and animal feet alike. I can’t remove the anti-tippers. They serve as a kind of rear cattle guard. I’ve scraped the paint. My mother is known to take wet wipes to the nooks and crannies when I get out of the car—on a chair I cleaned up to go into town—and come away with hay dust and dog hair.
When I realized that all the elements I rejected about the Invacare were things I was rejecting about myself and my life, I saw my pain in new ways. My choice became plain.
I know what works for me, and I appreciate why. When my pain was manageable and the inertia in my life resumed, I decided that I would address the Ki Mobility chair.
I began, in earnest, to look for a way to fix my old MyOn. I know that people felt—and still feel, this is an ongoing situation—I should rejoice in the Ki Mobility and continue to work to modify it. I should be sitting up straighter. I should, I should. But I had shoulded my way into the worst pain of my life and their shoulds made me feel like asking for help was impossible. The boundary between the medical model of disability and the social model of disability had knocked me down deeper into the pit, and their certitude turned the footholds I found within it to dust.
* * *
In April of 2023, Colorado became the first state to enact right to repair legislation that protects the rights of agriculturalists to repair their own equipment. John Deere calls this legislation “unnecessary,” likely pointing to a memorandum of understanding they recently signed with the American Farm Bureau (Neeley). Skeptics call this memorandum pacification that plays to Deere’s interests. It demands that, in return for Deere’s cooperation, state Farm Bureaus refrain from positively involving themselves in the right to repair movement (Hernandez). As of June 2023, sixteen states are considering right to repair legislation.
As things stand, proprietary tools, diagnostics, and software mean that what a skilled operator or ag mechanic could repair for a few hundred dollars costs a great deal more and takes exponentially longer because growers are left waiting for authorized technicians with often proprietary parts. Farmers and ranchers could, if current restrictions were lifted, end their forced dependency on a monopoly of company distributed parts and company authorized technicians.
A current bill in the Senate, introduced by Montana’s Senator Tester and co-sponsored by New Mexico’s Senator Ben Ray Luján, aims to address the right to repair nationally. The bill aims to empower America’s producers under an anti-monopoly framework and would require a multiplicity of changes, among them the right to the tools and digital resources needed to repair, access to part supply lines, and the availability of public domain access to parts, documentation, and software when a company no longer produces them for a product (United States Senate). Without these things, producers are often stuck waiting weeks and months in a profession that demands tight turnarounds.
This legislation is foregrounded by ongoing lawsuits against John Deere around the right to repair. Most of these lawsuits allege that John Deere is using technological advancements like software and software-based diagnostics to lock people out of making repairs and inflate their own profits through a monopoly. One specific class action lawsuit filed by Plum Ridge Farms in Illinois says, “Deere and its dealerships did not want the revenue stream from service and repair—a far more lucrative business than original equipment sales—to end when the equipment is purchased” (Plum Ridge Farms 6). The same lawsuit further alleges that owners are thereby often compelled to pay prices set by Deere’s demand for profit in an intentionally suppressed market to do their jobs.
A common misapprehension outside of agriculture is that parts are easily obtained and machines are easy to repair, a myth that is perpetuated by those who have never touched a wheelchair. It is often assumed that wheelchairs, like tractors, are fixed expeditiously. Something so needful would never be left to rust as a fancy paperweight. The truth is that even the simplest repair can take months and it is acceptable as standard practice.
Community-based repair might have been true in the previous century, but software changed so much in both sectors. Today, a farmer risks running afoul of warranties if they try to repair their own equipment. Even when it’s attempted, it’s generally impossible. Most Deere machines require technician-operated software for the system to recognize and accept any new part.
To become a dealer technician, a student often must complete an associate degree program that’s specifically branded by John Deere and serve to link Deere technology with local community colleges through the dealerships. There are twenty-four programs across the United States (John Deere Tech). Information about attending one of the programs is usually obtained through a local Deere dealership because to be admitted a student is generally required to be sponsored by a dealership. There are no advertised programs in New England (John Deere Tech). It is theoretically possible to attend school in Canada, but the practicalities of such are beyond many students. A program at SUNY-Cobleskill seemingly covers the Mid-Atlantic region. The nearest program to SUNY-Cobleskill on the East Coast is in North Carolina.
The Great Plains have better access to Deere’s preferred educational framework. Pins on the virtual map they provide are more plenteous in places like Illinois and Indiana. The inter-mountain states are once again underserved. From Montana clear down to New Mexico and out to Nevada, students are denied local access to education Deere advertises as “hands-on” on their website (John Deere Tech). A farmer in Utah would be hard pressed to attend the nearest program—their choices being in Walla Walla, WA or Garden City, KS—and obtain the education Deere all but requires before replying to their job ads.
Despite their love of software and technology, Deere has curiously not done much to expand their educational opportunities by partnering distance education with practicums in local dealerships to support communities in these underserved swaths of the country. A clear path to equitable access that would potentially maintain their monopoly and support brand visibility and buy-in—a wider educational network—has been ignored, leaving rural communities in leading agricultural states in the lurch.
* * *
The road to repair hasn’t been so simple as ordering a new joystick. My new eFix has specific processes to access the presets in the menu that limit what a user can do. Among the most basic things they limit include speed and acceleration, among other parameters. The book meant for the user insists that such access is limited to one’s specialist dealer.
I was able to order a new joystick. It took days to arrive. The joystick, which I changed myself, didn’t fix the issue. I would later find out the company had sent me a faulty part. I also need a new fuse and wiring from the wheel to the frame, parts I can only obtain from the company.
For my next attempt, I needed to mail the chair to the factory, something I couldn’t do because mailing the chair from my rural locality proved impossible—or at least impossible for me to figure out as I worked to keep my head above water while navigating pain that stole my capacity to think. I wanted to bring it to the factory, driving across state lines to do so, but that was equally impossible. I even sent an email to the only contact at the company I knew—however tenuously—and that email went ignored.
For my third attempt at assistance, I reached out to someone in disability advocacy in Philadelphia. They connected me with a repair shop. When I drove three hours to that repair shop, my chair returned days later, unrepaired. The only thing that was different was my depleted bank account. My current plan is to return the chair there when the needed parts have arrived in five months. The repair will take three days and raise my trip count yet again.
I am privileged to have the money to do what I need to do. Spending it without an end in sight feels like a punishment I richly deserve. I feel all the things I did wrong: asking for those casters, asking for a rigid back, not speaking up at moments I know now I should have, asking for help so openly because I don’t have the skills to figure things out myself, and not respecting myself enough to honor the fact that my ugly Invacare works for me, created this disaster that has ruined the momentum in my life.
I left the Ki at home—nearly dead even though it had been on the charger—and went to the end of term dinner in my old MyOn, its wheels rattling and the empty holder for its joystick a prominent fixture at my side. Rolling into that room was incredibly humbling. If my sister hadn’t been in the car and I hadn’t promised my mentor, I probably would have given into the urge not to go.
I sat with my feet sticking out of the passenger side of the car in the parking lot convincing myself that it was okay to roll through the doors. I’d worn a white dress and felt like a ghost, a worn-out husk of the person who had begun to write with fire in her heart. It seemed apt.
On the way home, I brooded, praying my life would change. My shoulders were screaming, and my neck was tight. Friends helped me get through the night—pushing me onto the stage, through the buffet line while I carried our plates, and out to the car—but the pictures came out terribly because I was so exhausted and overwhelmed. When I got home and saw that the Ki Mobility was somehow charging in earnest, I wanted to throw it out the window. I probably could not have lifted my arms above my head.
After the close of term banquet, the chair—the new Ki Mobility with an eFix 35—began to work. When lit, the screen declares that the battery is not charged. It warns me that the system will operate at reduced speeds to compensate. Yesterday, I tried to charge the chair. I was unable to keep its tiny front casters from stuttering over my kitchen floor’s transition to my small hallway as I returned it to its parking space.
Later investigation would prove that the battery needed a new 3amp fuse. I bought one locally for less than a few dollars. I was rolling within a few hours, albeit on alert for pressure sores. As it stands now, a sling back on the Ki will take two weeks to arrive and be installed. The MyOn won’t be repaired for five months as a fuse to fix it can only be ordered through the company and replaced by a trained technician.
When my functioning chair was taken from me—and I use that phrase intentionally because that is how it feels—I didn’t lose a part of my body.
My chair is not my legs. The comparison is rooted in ableism. I’m sorry it took me so many years to unpack it. People don’t need legs to be happy or to feel safe or to live without pain.
My chair is my freedom. My independence. My dignity.
And now it’s gone, and I must wait five months to get it back on account of some wiring and a fuse.
Why do people think it’s permissible to make disabled people live without functioning chairs? Why is it assumed we have all this time to give waiting on parts and repairs and are willing to live without what they take so easily for granted?
A medicalized view of my body is not the one that matters. If my chair is my freedom, then it follows that my chair must be a space of my liberation. I cannot allow my chair to be used to correct or fix me, especially not when it causes me pain. In time, I hope that I will make good on the resolve not to compare my body to abled bodies anymore. I don’t want to live up to their standards or stuff myself into their rigid-back chairs. I will never succeed. In trying, I just keep myself small and exhausted, running a race rigged against me.
What I want for my life matters more than how someone thinks I should live it.
I just don’t have the tools.
* * *
A farmer lost his life to suicide. This farmer had a new disker—the name comes from the steel discs used to break up the soil after plowing—and soon had an accident with it. Disker, farmer, and tractor all went into a ditch. It was a mistake that could happen to anyone, but it came at the worst possible moment and probably when coping didn’t seem possible. He got out, looked at the wreckage and estimated the repair bill and the wait time. I was told that he walked to the barn where he kept his rifles, and never left.
It’s important to understand that these attachments alone can cost well over $10k for a secondhand model made in the last five years. As discussed above, the times for repair can span weeks and are often only possible through authorized dealers and technicians because of repair restrictions. This is time and money that farmers don’t often have because both can mean the difference for the farm’s profitability and even survival.
Farming is a very immediate life, dealing day by day with new circumstances, even as the culture and lifestyle encourages expansive and generational thinking. When resources and community, like the capacity to repair, are not understood relationally—the way most frame what must be done right now as having long-term positive impacts if choices are made carefully in the moment—that immediacy in which agriculturalists can live and the way we are enculturated to think can become fraught with tension rather than empowerment.
His story has never left my heart. I don’t know his name. His story came to me at some meeting or another, and I remember looking down at my joystick so I wouldn’t betray the emotion on my face. Maybe I don’t even have the story right. It’s important that I tell it as I recall it. The story changed me.
These days, I facilitate creative writing workshops in agricultural settings. My work supports community-building and grounding through observational writing. I facilitate bodily connection through writing primarily because it is proven to assist in suicide prevention.
Male production agriculturalists today lose their lives to suicide at a rate about three and a half times that of the general population (Ringgenberg 4) and one and half times that of a combat veteran (Ruiz). In some states, that figure rises to about five times that of the general population. These underreported and understudied figures are up by forty percent in the last two decades (Peterson) and are increasing again owing to the pandemic and widespread drought (West). What data we do have suggests that rates are highest in Montana (Peterson). Across the nation, suicide in rural areas is forty-five percent higher than it is in urban communities (Ivey-Stephenson et al). Agricultural suicide is a crisis, and it is a crisis the most vulnerable in our community all too often suffer in silence.
There is an intrinsic connection between the right to repair and mental wellbeing. The ability to repair and maintain equipment directly informs the agriculturalist’s ability to feed the nation, a drive noted farmer-psychologist Mike Rosmann calls the agrarian imperative theory (Rosmann). Functioning equipment that farmers and ranchers are empowered to repair supports not only economic growth and development, but mental-being. The knowledge that a problem is solvable, within the scope of one’s present resources, speaks to resiliency. Community.
Ecosystems of labor and mutual support flourish when production agriculturalists have the socioemotional and practical resources to repair their equipment, hold onto their land, and feed people. When they are disenfranchised and their goal is made all the harder, the failure they may internalize intensifies exponentially.
Right to repair legislation will save lives. It will invigorate rural communities. The ability to freely purchase parts and fix a tractor when a storm is coming will change the experience of farming and ranching for the better. Communal values of independence and self-reliance will be respected. When someone does reach out for help repairing something, they will be able to choose the ways, means, and whys of doing so. If they get in over their head, the person they call will be someone they trust, someone working in their local community.
It takes time to create this change, change that often comes at a huge risk to the people it is intended to help. In disability spaces, the right to repair is being shaped more and more by DIY wheelchair repair classes and the right to repair law in Colorado has already created change. Nationally, many Centers for Independent Living are holding such workshops now, although most classes center a bog-standard manual wheelchair. Typically, they don’t delve into much related to power wheelchairs, let alone anything electrical or mechanical.
The complexity poses a risk that many Centers probably want to avoid. The cost of a power wheelchair, and the increasing risk to the person’s safety, if they don’t know what they’re doing, makes self-repair a gamble. This presupposes the user is physically able to undertake the work. This must be considered, too. Existing educational pathways don’t often leave room for inventive or compensatory approaches in getting the job done.
Moreover, just like with agricultural machinery, much of the information needed to repair and maintain a power chair is inaccessible. It’s all proprietary and available described in service manuals limited to technician use. Often when people turn to repair services, the wait lasts weeks or even months.
Perhaps this comparison sheds some light on why many people in agriculture prefer older equipment. The price differential is not the main selling point. The ability to fix something on their own terms matters. John Deere, for example, might limit where someone can buy a part but most people with a little training will know what to do with it. This is less probable as the technology becomes more current because there is a disconnect between people and the providers.
Independence is worth the hassle of being rained on for many. Still, as my foray into rigid-backed wheelchairs shows, the challenge remains difficult even when the choice is between “old and serviceable” and “new and disenfranchising.”
Agriculturalists shouldn’t have to make those choices for the land and the animals they steward. The right to repair is fundamentally about trusting our farmers and ranchers to make decisions as informed professionals. It is about investing in the relationship between manufacturer and end-user and facilitating communication and common efforts around a shared goal: long-term functionality that enables the grower to do their jobs.
The road to that perhaps idealized future—a future where a rancher or farmer can have a tractor at the very least with a radio and is free to repair it, and where a wheelchair user can rely on local service providers they trust—is paved through education. Education needs to be openly available and cross corporate boundaries so that a trained mechanic with the know-how and desire to learn can grow and engage freely. Information about repairs is only useful when it’s available at a reasonable cost to people with the expertise to apply it. We need to value ag mechanics enough to make learning a priority for our children. We need to ensure that their learning is free of corporate interests. A shiny new tractor, like a sleek wheelchair, is nothing but a pretty millstone around their necks when the error codes flash.
Hernandez, Joe. “John Deere Vows to Open up Its Tractor Tech, but Right-to-Repair Backers Have Doubts.” NPR, 10 Jan. 2023, www.npr.org/2023/01/10/1147934682/john-deere-right-to-repair-farmers-tractors.
Ivey-Stephenson, Asha Z., et al. “Suicide Trends among and within Urbanization Levels by Sex, Race/Ethnicity, Age Group, and Mechanism of Death — United States, 2001–2015.” MMWR. Surveillance Summaries, vol. 66, no. 18, 2017, pp. 1–16, https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.ss6618a1.
“John Deere TECH.” John Deere, 2023, www.deere.com/en/our-company/john-deere-careers/dealer-technician-training/jd-tech/.
Neeley, Todd. “Colorado Becomes First State to Pass AG Right-to-Repair Legislation.” DTN Progressive Farmer, 13 Apr. 2023, www.dtnpf.com/agriculture/web/ag/equipment/article/2023/04/12/colorado-becomes-first-state-pass-ag.
Northern Illinois District Court. Plum Ridge Farms vs. Deere. 7 Feb. 2022. Docket Alarm.
Rosmann, Michael R. “The Agrarian Imperative.” Journal of Agromedicine, vol. 15, no. 2, 2010, pp. 71–75, https://doi.org/10.1080/10599241003630585.
Ruiz, Frank, et al. “A Practical Review of Suicide among Veterans: Preventive and Proactive Measures for Health Care Institutions and Providers.” Public Health Reports, vol. 138, no. 2, 2022, pp. 223–231, https://doi.org/10.1177/00333549221085240.
United States, Congress, “Agricultural Right to Repair Act.” Congress, 2022. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/3549/titles. Accessed 28 June 2023.
West, Sandy. “Economic Blow of Coronavirus Hits America’s Farmers.” US News, 2020, www.usnews.com/news/healthiest-communities/articles/2020-05-07/economic-blow-of-coronavirus-hits-americas-farmers.
Amanda Marie Gipson
Amanda Marie Gipson is a creative writer from Northern Appalachia with a background in community-based agricultural education. She earned her MFA from Wilkes University in 2023 and also holds an M.Agr from Colorado State. Her work centers the beauty and diversity of American agriculture. Amanda serves as the fiction editor for the Northern Appalachian Review.