Disability, Conservation and Me.
By Jack Wright
Trekking through the flooded forests of the Amazon to survey pink river dolphins. Exploring the forests of Madagascar to record populations of lemurs. Camera trapping big cats in Southern Africa. These were all dissertation subjects for my classmates at university. All pretty exciting eh? No doubting that. For me though, analysing abundances of wetland birds at Minsmere was more my style. Who needs rainforests when you could have Suffolk? Sure, avocets and bitterns probably aren’t as amazing as caiman or sifaka but each to their own really. These other more advanced studies abroad came about not only due to a strong fascination but also due to capability. Those travelling to Brazil or Madagascar could do so because, well, they could. The only thing stopping them was perhaps finances and willpower.
In my experience, I’d be much happier staring at ducks rather than dolphins but that is my mind completely indoctrinating my mind to complacency. British nature reserves tend to have paths, hides and cafes with carrot cake. The wilderness tends to require more imaginative graft, as well as confidence and general physical strength. The latter two of which I most certainly lack. It only really dawned on me recently that I would and probably should have explored the globe in search of a more riveting research subject, if my life was ordinary. Being the nature nerd I am, I should want and hope to see much more exciting wildlife, rather than settling for what’s on my doorstep. I should want to travel the earth without a care in the world. Except, I do have one care, and it’s a biggie.
My cerebral palsy is the very reason why I have such enthusiasm for the environment but it is also the very thing that has held me back fully pursuing my passion. So, what’s my story?
My diagnosis aged two meant that I have not understood a life outside of disability, which is a bizarre blessing as I never got to feel anything other than this. I don’t feel broken, I don’t feel like there’s anything ‘wrong’ with me, I just have aspects of my body that aren’t the same as the average population. Not everyone is the same height or has the same hairstyle. It just so happens I needed to go to the doctors more than anyone else. The term ‘normal’ dilutes into thin air and is a concept I’ve grappled with. Am I an ordinary bloke with a disability on the side or am I a disabled guy who lives a relatively straightforward life? I may never know the true answer but the reality is, I am fortunate that I have fared better than others with the same condition. That being said, it doesn’t mean my childhood was all rainbows and lollipops. Operations, injections and splints meant I basically had a season ticket at the hospital. This was my life though. Most others would be at hockey training or music lessons whilst I’d be with the physiotherapist. Crucially in all this, I’ve never felt anxious or upset about my disability. The fact is that if I did, I’d be down every day. Having grown up with lots of things to potentially worry about, I just learned to get on with things. My stiff lower leg definitely developed my stiff upper lip.
Inspiration towards nature is a curious one. Many cite family members, role model teachers or celebrity idols. From my perspective, my passion was ignited by a combination of factors but chiefly, in my opinion, my disability. In a world where my peers would be sporty as ever, I could not compete. Growing up in a family of sports fanatics meant that if I actually decided to care about getting active and taking part, I’d be left behind. Like natural selection almost, I developed my own niche interest that would keep me occupied away from getting a sweat on. But if not sport, what other option did I have? The simple fact of growing up in wildlife-rich East Anglia, alongside plenty of animal themed enrichment growing up, meant that an interest in nature was an obvious choice. I don’t think I ever worried that I couldn’t play tennis as well as my dad, or hockey as well as my brother, I focussed all my brain power on all things nature. Even from my earliest years, I was an obsessive nerd that just wouldn’t be stopped. I recall a teacher asking me if I wanted to play with a buffalo toy, before I angrily corrected her to say ‘IT’S A WILDEBEEST!’ I was, at most, five years old.
A fascination towards nature was totally on brand for whacky younger me as it fit my ideology of distinct. I almost enjoy being a black sheep so the fact that I was a nerdy birdwatcher in a flock of others who had little interest hardly phased me. I skipped to the front of the theme park queue, I did art instead of cross country and I got to go birdwatching instead of joining the army cadets. Life was sweet. With no real peer pressure, I let my passion flourish.
Years down the line, a conservation-based degree was an obvious choice for a flora and fauna fanatic such as myself. After three long years of Environmental Studies, I graduated and instantly found a well-paid job in conservation which set me off on the career path of my dreams. I am, of course, joking. The one thing they don’t teach you in a conservation degree is how to fly after graduation tosses you off a cliff into the abyss of adulthood. Everyone struggles for sure but for me, I’d entered a race where seemingly the hurdles were a mile high. I was never proficient at athletics anyway. So, what were my challenges?
Upon leaving university, I just had no direction of where I wanted to go in life. A greater struggle for me, who due to my disability, had every forward step mapped out for me. Now that map ahead of me was blank and I couldn’t retrace my steps. For zoology graduates, further research or science-based placements were an option. One of the bonkers side effects of cerebral palsy is reduced mathematical ability, which meant any statistical analyses or complex equations may as well have been gibberish to me. Anything deeply rooted in science was out. Any budding ecologists or conservationists could turn their hand at more hands-on roles like land management. As much as I enjoyed being outdoors, manual labour was never going to be my strong suit. The cruel irony was that I thrived in nature but couldn’t put my back into it. I never felt confident whilst learning to drive either, so any job in nature needed to be within a bus ride or a short walk from a train station. Not ideal if you want to explore deep into the wilds.
In my head, my magical dream job of where I could be out in the fresh air, but not for too long, had reinforced a contradictory mind set. There were other opportunities out there that fit what I could cope with, but the vast majority would either be voluntary or required years’ worth of experience. I couldn’t climb on the career ladder without making massive sacrifices. If I was living under the wing of my parents with financial security and no responsibilities, sure, years of internships would have set me up perfectly. Sadly, bills exist and food costs money. As does a shiny masters degree, which at this point was completely out of the question. I came to a crossroads where I’d either need to follow my dreams or scrap my passion for practicality.
Spoiler alert: I went for practicality.
Office jobs may be the antithesis of what I had spent my life building but they’re the start I needed. No hard graft or lofty expectations, I could build a career from their foundations. I don’t regret beginning a working life away from conservation, but I do regret how ill-prepared I was for my time post-university. My upbringing sheltered me hugely which in retrospect have me very little motivation. I could have enhanced myself early on in the world of conservation jobs, I could have gone out of my way to get work experienced and networked. Instead, I sat back and assumed everything would fall into place. As much as a step up would have helped, my experience of environmental job searching was that any decent graduate opportunities were difficult to find, disabled or not. In a world where Attenborough and Thunberg are idols and environmentalism is a hot buzzword, it’s bizarre that there’s not mountains of investment and jobs in this sector. For a topic we need the next generations to engage with, the lack of opportunity seems like an ironic road block. My expectations of a dream job in conservation may seem warped but if there were a greater selection of options for me, would it have been so difficult.
Right now, I feel as though I have a harmonious work/nature balance whereby I can still develop in my day job but also appreciate nature in my spare time. I find wildlife photography is a welcome distraction, I actively volunteer with the RSPB and I write my own blogs. My income isn’t from my lifelong passion but that’s totally fine. I had my barriers and I accepted they were too vast to breach. My advice, with hindsight, to anyone reading this wanting to start a conservation career is essentially do what I did not. Prepare. Get as much experience as you can and truly immerse yourself in your passion. If you don’t have anything significant in your life holding you back then you shouldn’t settle for complacency. My disability is a convenient excuse, whether it directly impacts something or not, and that lack of drive held me back. Sitting back or hesitating will do you no favours. Certainly, the system of environmental jobs has its fundamental flaws but that is out of your control. If someone ordered the cliche platter then here is your sizeable portion of; never give up.
My disability is a blessing, not a curse. A specialist told my parents upon my diagnosis that I would never live a normal life, I would have a below average intelligence and I’d never walk unaided. I wonder where that specialist is now but part of me wants to rub my degree in their face. If it wasn’t for my alternative perspective on the Earth, I’d probably not give much consideration towards conservation. I’d probably have been a jock, but I was born a nerd. Viva la nature nerds!