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Celebrating 20 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act: Armstrong man helped with passage of historic legislation

By Staff | Jul 29, 2010

Dennis Theesfeld, gets around well in his wheelchair. Here, he shows another lift mechanism used to help him in and out of his tractors. EDN photo by David Swartz

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the passage of the American Disabilities Act, Senator Tom Harkin is sending staff to all 99 Iowa counties to collect stories about the positive impact of the legislation.

Harkin aide Nathan VanderPlaats discovered a unique story from Dennis Theesfeld of rural Armstrong-Theesfeld gave testimony to Congress about the need for the bill which Harkin helped draft.

In 1990, Harkin was chair of the committee debating the bill.

Theesfeld said he had seven minutes to give his testimony.

While he doesn’t remember exactly what he said, he did go over time and there was a caution light and a red light and then Harkin unplugged it.

Above, Dennis Theesfeld used this lift to get into his White tractor on his farm north of Armstrong.

“He said, ‘Since you’re from Iowa and I’m from Iowa, we’ll just slow down and take our time,” Theesfeld said.

As a person who hasn’t let his disability get him down, the farmer from rural Armstrong is a strong advocate for the ADA.

Theesfeld was injured during the Vietnam War and lost the use of his legs.

He and his unit were setting up ambush mines.

“One of our own mines went off-static electricity set it off,” he said. “A steel-ball bearing is still in me.”

Theesfeld said the best doctor he had told him he’d be walking in six months to the year. That gave him a little hope, but when he didn’t get better, he realized that gave him time to adjust to his situation.

Upon returning to Armstrong, his first job was at the hardware store.

But his first love was farming.

Easter Seals, a non-profit organization that helps people with disabilities, set up meetings with those who needed help.

“You meet people in different situations and see what they had and what components might work for you,” said Theesfeld.

One of the things that helped him was a “quick hitch” that allows tractors to connect with implements without getting on and off.

A good friend helped him tackle other tasks.

The two converted a White tractor for Theesfeld to use and a 12-volt hoist to get on and off.

Theesfeld said some might frown on his use of cable in the hoist.

“But if the cable is frayed, then you have to replace it,” he said.

Together, he and his mechanically-inclined friend put the hoist together for less than $200.

Together, the pair came up with other ways so that Theesfeld could operate his farm independently.

“I had 600 hogs and took care of them myself,” he said.

But he said being in a wheelchair, he always had to plan ahead.

Theesfeld was also the inspiration for a rural Estherville farmer who became disabled.

Bob Schacherer lost the use of his legs when a sprayer fell on him.

Theesfeld said Schacherer came over one day and the two chatted for a couple hours.

“Finally I said, ‘Bob, why don’t you get on my tractor and take a ride?” Theesfeld said. “You can’t hurt nothing.”

While Schacherer was reluctant at first, Theesfeld showed him how to use the hoist to get in the tractor.

“He put the tractor in gear and Bob had the biggest smile on his face,” Theesfeld said.

Schacherer also went back to farming.

Meanwhile Theesfeld quit farming in 1996, because he lost the use of his right hand.

Not because of a farm accident, but he dislocated his arm when pulling himself into his car.

Meanwhile he still owns 80 acres which his nephews farm.

His current house is built to accommodate his movements easily.

Wide-open spaces and lowered cabinets make it convenient for him to get around in his motorized wheelchair.

A lift over the bed helps him get in and out and bed. A generator was put in because he has to have power for all the things that help him do his daily tasks.

While Theesfeld has been greatly helped by his wife Sharon, friendly neighbors also are ready to lend a hand.

While still farming, his tractor bogged down in some mud.

“All I had was some water and M&Ms,” he said.

But he turned on his flashers, and within a few minutes a neighbor came and pulled him out.

Theesfeld also has no problem helping others out.

Every year, his nephews seed a portion of his land with sweet corn. When it’s ready, he offers it to his neighbors-and with Armstrong just a mile and a half a way, he has many.

Many friends aren’t willing to just pick some corn without anything in return.

“Last year we had 12 apple pies,” he said. Others give him produce from their gardens.”

With the 20th anniversary of the ADA legislation, Theesfeld said the biggest difference is the things that are available that weren’t 20 years ago.

“The view hasn’t changed but the technology has gotten better,” he said. “There’s hardly anywhere you can’t get to.”