A Step in a New Direction

Stepping Away from City, Adults Spend Day Horsing Around

As they climbed out of the van onto the gravel driveway at the 28-acre farm in Racine County, the group of six non-hearing, developmentally disabled adults, all members of the Community Access for the Deaf Program at HEAR Wisconsin, sniffed something inherent to country living – horse apples.

 Pamela waves as Yvette and Lia walk her safely around the indoor arena at Stepping Stone Farms.

Pamela waves as Yvette and Lia walk her safely around the indoor arena at Stepping Stone Farms.

The four women and two men (two or three firmly holding their noses) adjusted to the aroma as they shuffled past emerald-crowned ducks paddling in a blue kiddie pool. They smiled at Sparky, the black and white Border Collie. Bees buzzed on yellow wildflowers while the group arranged themselves around two picnic tables. A few feet away, behind a weathered wooden fence, three horses - Nina, a shiny black Tennessee Walker, Silver, a sweet mottled, snowy-gray Arabian and Reggie, a stately red/brown American Quarter Horse - munched hay, watching. It was a balmy 70 degrees under a clear, blue sky. 

Stepping Stone Farms holds the usual treasures for city visitors, and, being able to hear is not required. 

Led by Passion
Just ask Ruth Stuhr. She is HEAR Wisconsin’s Community Access for the Deaf (CADP) program coordinator. She’s been doing what she loves for 15 years. 

HEAR Wisconsin’s Community Access for the Deaf program supports Deaf and hard of hearing adults with developmental disabilities who may also be medically fragile. The primary program goal is to help them learn to live independently and socialize with peers. Each participant receives an assessment for functional living, communication, and/or speech-language skills. A service team develops goals and writes a plan that may include once-per-week group classes and home visits that may focus on social, recreational, financial and communication skills. Employment assistance is also available. HEAR Wisconsin’s program is the only one in the state that specifically works with Deaf adults with developmental and/or intellectual disabilities. 

“Deaf adults often become part of programs for hearing adults, and may struggle to communicate with others,” Stuhr said. “That  is why this program is so important.” “They can communicate with each other and with us with American Sign Language (ASL). In other programs, that is not possible,” Stuhr added. 

 Reggie enjoys an afternoon snack while watching visitors at Stepping Stone Farms in Racine County.

Reggie enjoys an afternoon snack while watching visitors at Stepping Stone Farms in Racine County.

One of the most popular group outings is Stepping Stone Farms. Located just off Seven Mile Road in Franksville, Stepping Stone operates as a nonprofit. It is an experiential learning and therapeutic facility, popular with individuals, families, schools, businesses and mental health professionals. The horses are trained to work with disabled adults by equine specialists. 

Stuhr and other volunteers look forward to bringing the group to the farm. “This will be our fourth time,” Stuhr said. “The farm has been a real hit. Most of our adults live in the city so they don’t get to see farm life. It has been a real treat for them to get to ride a horse.” 

Stirring up Memories
Amy, 35, has been in CADP for ten years. She has autism, is Deaf and developmentally disabled. For her, the farm holds many charms, especially braiding the horse’s hair.  

“It is fun,” she said. “And there is so much to do and learn.”

Pamela, 65, joined the group in 2004. She is Deaf, developmentally disabled and has diabetes. She has three favorite farm activities - braiding the horse mane - like her friend, Amy – and brushing and riding. Many of the adults attend other day programs, but none of the staff know American Sign Language, which makes communication impossible. 

 The group walks along a grassy path to visit horses at Stepping Stone Farms.

The group walks along a grassy path to visit horses at Stepping Stone Farms.

“We love it here,” Pamela said. We like being with other Deaf friends and people who sign like us. When we are the only Deaf people, it’s lonely!” 

The farm is popular with other groups, too. It is a true teaching facility, according to executive director Lia Sader. “We have helped kids learn to walk, given people back the use of a hand/arm, helped people with autism, and helped kids learn they have value and worth,” she said. 

Empathy and Respect Rein
Stepping Stone is home to Nina, Silver, Reggie and more than two dozen other horses, (29 total) all donated or abandoned for one reason or another. Sader, who grew up in the city, has no idea why she loves horses so much. 

“They are as essential to me as breathing,” she said. “And, anyone who comes to the farm sees our imperfect horses and it speaks to them! They may think, ‘OK, maybe life isn’t turning out exactly as planned, but that doesn’t mean you give up! It doesn’t mean good things can’t happen.’” 

Deaf adults often become part of programs for hearing adults, and may struggle to communicate with others,” Stuhr said. “That is why this program is so important.

Each of the six CADP adults took turns brushing Reggie and Nina, and then riding around the indoor area, fully supported by Lia and volunteers Lynn, Mary and Yvette. Before leaving, the group made their way along a grassy path to another pasture to visit some of the other horses. It was a challenge for those with a slower gait, but the smiles indicated it was worth the effort. 

“Getting outdoors can be really helpful for people,” Sader said. “Fresh air combined with wide open spaces combined with horses can be therapeutic. The horses are the stars. They don’t judge and that makes people happy.”