Sunday, June 06, 1999

Disabilities are not disabling for Amish

Enquirer contributor

        FARMERSTOWN, Ohio — We know we are in the right place when the frequency of white frame houses increases. We know because there is an absence of curtains, an absence of electric wires and an absence of automobiles.

        Before long, we meet a horse and buggy, then another, and yet another. We have found our way into an Amish community.

        Disability happens in every culture and every socioeconomic group. The Amish — quaint, admirable people who keep the ”old ways” of farming and making utilitarian goods by hand — are no exception. They are, however, good teachers of how disability should be viewed.

        “Disabled people?” one Amish traveler mused. “No, I don't think we have any... Oh, well, there's the fellow who can't hear, but we just write everything we need to say to him in church. And there's the fellow who can't walk, but we just made a ramp to bring his wheelchair into his store.”

        Syl and Clara Hershberger are marvelous examples of how the Amish take on disabilities. He's blind; she has had one leg amputated. Together they run a successful Amish business.

        “We heard that the owner here was blind and wondered if we could speak with him,” we tell the woman outside Farmerstown Book and Broom.

        She sticks her head in the shop door, has a brief conversation, and urges us to go on in. “Is Mr. Hershberger your relative,” I ask our hostess as she points the way. “I should think so,” she says. “He's my husband.”

        Syl Hershberger has as many questions as answers and is happy to tell his tale.

        Like all Amish children, he went to school only until the eighth grade. But he attended the Ohio State School for the Blind, a residential school in Columbus. Traveling to and from school on the Greyhound, he gained independent traveling skills — the same skills that today enable him to walk unaided with his white cane into town for the Tuesday livestock sale, where he sets up a table selling his books, handmade brooms, and assorted novelties.

        In the shop the rest of the week, responsibilities are evenly divided between Mr. Hershberger and his wife, who lost her leg several years ago in a farm machinery accident.

        There is no talking cash register here. In fact, no cash register of any sort. A simple drawer for cash and receipts and a box on his table on Tuesdays is all Mr. Hershberger needs.

The old-fashioned way
        Shelves of the tiny shop are crammed with books — both Amish and “English” books on religion, Amish culture and history — as well as an odd assortment of novelties and sundries from home remedies to cotton socks. With pride he demonstrates the broom-making machine — the same machine he has used for 30 years.

        On his desk is a mechanical braille writer he uses to record broom sales. Other accounts are kept by Mrs. Hershberger in paper ledgers.

        “I got a letter asking if we were Y2K compliant,” Mrs. Hershberger quips, “and I asked myself, "What do they think? We have no computer, no telephone, no electricity. Of course we're ready!'”

        Like many Amish couples, the Hershbergers live in a home built by friends and neighbors. Mr. Hershberger proudly explains how he designed it himself.

        All the doors are wide, he says, to accommodate his buddies in wheelchairs. The toilet (yes, they have running water) is a distance from the wall to allow one wheelchair-using friend space to turn around.

        Because they are shopkeepers, the couple doesn't work much on the family farm. Mr. Hershbergeris surprised, though, when asked if he did farm chores growing up as a blind child.

        Of course he did. He had the same chores as his siblings — bailing the hay, tending the vegetables, doing his part.

        We English, as the Amish call us, are so sophisticated. Yet, our unemployment rate is 70 percent among those with disabilities.

        These simple farmers and craftspeople have a 0 percent unemployment rate for disabled and nondisabled alike. They have to think to figure out which is which. Their main concern is figuring out how to get the job done.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail: