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#RespectTheAbility Campaign: Spotlight on the Spece Brothers

#RespectTheAbility Campaign: Spotlight on Iowa

Physical Limitations Don’t Stop the Spece Brothers From Making Their Dreams Come True

Independence, Iowa, Jan. 21 – Brothers Jake and Josh Spece may have spinal muscular atrophy and use wheelchairs to get around, but neither allows his physical limitations to get in the way of his dreams.

Josh Spece, Sue Spece, and Sue’s mother, JoAnn Johnston

Josh Spece, Sue Spece, and Sue’s mother, JoAnn Johnston

While Jake owns Johnston Creek Farms, where he provides customized feeding and tending of baby calves for farms and agribusiness in the area, his brother Josh owns and operates In The Country Garden and Gifts, a garden and gift shop located on the family dairy farm. Josh founded the shop business in 1998 with some artistic collaboration from his mother, Sue Spece.

High expectations and family engagement are key parts of promoting independence and improving employment outcomes for young people with disabilities. It is clear Sue Spece instilled this spirit in her sons from an early age, which is a big factor in ensuring positive results.

Expecting and working toward success are motivational factors that can support the ultimate entry of a student with disabilities into the workforce. For far too long, people with disabilities have faced stigma, myths, and misconceptions about their capacity to work, to become independent, and to pursue careers. Setting high expectations for success that begins with families often leads to successful career training and job preparation.

The Spece family’s dedication to Jake and Josh’s employment have made Johnston Creek Farms and In The Country Garden and Gifts featured examples of RespectAbility’s #RespectTheAbility campaign, which highlights companies that either employ or are run by people with disabilities. An estimated 15 percent of business owners are people with disabilities including Jake and Josh Spece.

Corralling a thriving cattle business and farm

Jake Spece tending calves at Johnston Creek Farms

Jake Spece tending calves at Johnston Creek Farms

Jake Spece started raising cattle with his grandfather on the family farm when he was just 14 years old. With the help of a youth loan from the Farm Service Agency, he developed his own dairy cow milking business as a teenager.

After graduating from high school, Jake enrolled in Northeast Iowa Community College to study Dairy Science. He had a particular interest in learning about other income-producing options within the dairy industry that might be available to him to pursue vocationally.

Eventually Jake concluded that the dairy industry itself was too limited in scope to satisfy him. He could see no way to expand his operations to meet his vision, so in 2008, he quit milking cows and found another direction for his business.

Over the last few years, Johnston Creek Farms has grown and evolved by strategically targeting the customized care of calves as an unmet need within the larger agricultural community.

Jake’s workday revolves around feeding cattle, building fences, establishing rotational grazing patterns for livestock, and performing all the functions essential to maintaining a thriving cattle business and working farm.

A grant from Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services provided Jake with funding for business start-up expenses, including building a barn. He also used a Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS) to pay for expenses related to his business vehicle.

Jake’s truck is a key piece of equipment for this business. It has been modified to accommodate his wheelchair, and he relies on it to monitor cattle and calves spread over the 23-acre farm every day.

Jake employs one assistant who works as a hired hand. Jake and his assistant keep a vigilant eye on the livestock so they will be aware of any feed, medical, or climate-related issue affecting the cattle almost immediately and can act quickly to resolve any problems.

Bringing horticulture and crafts together

Josh Spece in front of a Colocasia 'Thailand Giant' from his garden

Josh Spece in front of a Colocasia ‘Thailand Giant’ from his garden

Josh has an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in Horticulture and a love of unusual plants. Sue has a creative eye and 30 years of experience making crafts. Josh and Sue work together to make In The Country a one-of-a-kind garden and gift shop. Best known for specializing in hostas, In The Country also offers shade perennials, succulents, and dwarf conifers. Josh takes pride in offering everything needed to create backyard water features, including an extensive variety of water plants, liners, pumps, and other pond supplies.

In The Country relocated and expanded the greenhouse in 2012. It now showcases a water garden, a rock garden, a shade house, and an extensive display of hosta plants. Josh is always ready to talk hostas with his customers. Hosta collectors (otherwise known as “hosta-holics”) can choose from hundreds of the newest varieties and wander through nearly a thousand different hosta plants on display.

In The Country hosts an annual Hosta and Dessert Social where guests are invited to mingle and enjoy fabulous desserts in the hosta garden. The gift shop also offers unique metal garden art, statuary, fairy garden accessories, and other homespun keepsakes.

Josh is a regular contributor of articles and photos to the American Hosta Society’s The Hosta Journal and serves as web editor-in-chief on the Board of Directors for the American Hosta Society. Josh also designed In The Country’s website, which includes an online store for long-distance customers. He has spoken to numerous garden groups about hostas, succulents, and water gardens and has created
PowerPoint slide presentations on topics including “The Big World of Little Hostas” and “Heavenly Hostas.”

Josh acknowledges that his wheelchair meets with some obvious obstacles in the garden, although he says that with creativity, determination, and support from family and friends, his physical limitations do not have to get in his way.

In The Country is open April-October, Tuesday-Sunday, 9am-6pm and November-Christmas, Wednesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm.

Jake and Josh Spece were originally profiled in “Thinking Outside the Employment Box: Entrepreneurs with Disabilities Share Their Self-Employment Success Stories.” These Iowa entrepreneurs found creative ways to leverage their skills, talents, abilities, resources and social connections into their perfect job – not by finding employment but by creating it. Read all of their stories here: Thinking Outside the Employment Box.

#RespectTheAbility Success Stories

Download our free toolkit, “Disability Employment First Planning Tool,” for more information.

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the VP, Communications and Entertainment & News Media, of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities so all people with disabilities can fully participate in every aspect of community. As an individual with an acquired nonvisible disability – Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy – she works at the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. She regularly conducts trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible for entertainment executives throughout the industry. Appelbaum partners with studios, production companies and writers’ rooms to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall story-telling process. These initiatives increase diverse and authentic representation of disabled people on screen, leading to systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities. She has consulted on more than 100 TV episodes and films with A&E, Bunim-Murray Productions, NBCUniversal, Netflix, ViacomCBS, and The Walt Disney Company, among others. She represents RespectAbility on the CAA Full Story Initiative Advisory Council, Disney+ Content Advisory Council, MTV Entertainment Group Culture Code and Sundance Institute’s Allied Organization Initiative. She is the author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit and the creator of an innovative Lab Program for entertainment professionals with disabilities working in development, production and post-production. She is a recipient of the 2020 Roddenberry Foundation Impact Award for this Lab. To reach her, email [email protected]

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