Lonely Conservationists

Mel (Advocating for myself)

Written by Mel Christi

Acceptance. Resignation. Two sides to the same coin. They have different connotations, and yet for me in this context they are the same. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that there are things about me I cannot change, so I must simply accept myself. Like many others before me who have shared their vulnerability here, like a paper daisy unfurling to greet the sun, I too must bloom. It’s taken 25 years to get here, and I am a work in progress.  But why I am here, and why should I share my story? Well, it’s easy to present a shiny surface to the world. It’s harder to show the many steps and detours and bogs you’ve crawled through; the battle scars, and how you’ve healed. I feel I’ve come a long way, and maybe my story will inspire someone on a similar journey to not give up just yet. That hill you’re on, that you’re not sure you can climb? You can do it. One step after another. Keep moving, keep trying and never be afraid of trying an alternative route. There is almost always another way! 

Let’s get this over with – I’m starting to waffle, sorry! I’m deaf. Or hard-of-hearing. Either is fine. But I’m in that weird grey area between the Deaf and Hearing worlds, and I don’t really fit in either. I’m finding my own niche in this ecotone, and I’ll admit it’s a work in progress. I lost my hearing in an accident when I was little. Fortunately, I’d already started learning to talk, so with the amazing support of my mum and speech therapists I was able to adjust and catch up to my peers. However, while growing up I always felt like I was on the periphery, looking on from afar. 

Hearing aid technology has come a LONG way, but when I was a kid there was a lot I missed (and still do). That quote by Hellen Keller: “Blindness separates people from things; deafness separates people from people” cuts deeply, because she’s right. You miss the little whispers, the in-jokes, the passing quips. Those delicate but tangible little things that hold us together as a community. There are few things harder than trying to follow a conversation with people in normal hangouts like pubs or cafes. It’s shattering being so close to people and yet feeling so far away. It was like I was on the other side of a glass door… I hate asking people to repeat things, and I shrivel inside when I have to ask for something to be repeated more than once and I catch that flash of irritation, or if I mis-hear something and respond inappropriately. There’s only so much you can awkwardly laugh off! Watching movies with large groups of people also used to be painful, because there’d always be at least one person saying ‘oh, can we turn the subs off? I can’t enjoy the movie they’re so distracting’. I didn’t like inconveniencing people, so would turn them off. Now, I’ve learned the importance of advocating for yourself. If you don’t look after yourself, who will? 

Advocating for yourself also means pushing for the career you want, or the hobbies or interests you may have, that society has prematurely decreed you can’t do. We all have value, we just have different capabilities. My lack of hearing doesn’t detract from me being a hard worker. I give whatever I’m doing my all – partly because I like seeing a job well done, partly because I have this deep need for people to see me as more than my deafness. This has culminated in a drive to continually push out of my comfort zone, and figure out what I can and cannot do.

Currently, I’m working on building my skills as a field ecologist. I’ve always been passionate about the environment and knew from an early age that I wanted to work with wildlife somehow. After a few hiccoughs in high school (thanks, excessive flooding due to a combination of climate change and La Niña), I found an alternative route into university through OUA and graduated with a degree in Applied Science from RMIT. I swapped degrees half-way through, and studied Counter-terrorism and Security for a while until I realised that while I would be helping people, it led straight to an office job and I am very much an Outdoors Girl™. I need sunshine! Applied Science also wasn’t leading to where I wanted, although it was a great step in the right direction. I then completed a Graduate Diploma in Ornithology because I’m fascinated by birds and how they’re being impacted by climate change and other anthropogenic impacts like habitat fragmentation and fire. 

I had fun and learned so much throughout my education, but there were many times where I would have mini existential crises and wonder if it was worth the struggle. I didn’t learn about Deaf Fatigue until two years ago, and then everything made so much sense – why I was always coming home from school with headaches, and why I would always be so much more tired than my peers. Hearing aids are great, but I still have to engage in active listening 100% of the time I’m not sleeping. So if I’m with you, and I’m yawning my head off – its not you, it’s me! Trying to listen to professors both in the lab and in the field, and in recorded lectures, was also a unique trial. Especially if they had an accent. I used to hate standing out, and would avoid giving them my FM system, until I realised that actually no one cares and I was just hindering myself. FM systems are now much more discreet. When I was little, they were quite obvious – you had to wear them on a belt with leads that connected to your hearing aids or cochlear implant. Not only would they get caught on everything, but children are not great at being diplomatic and so even at six I could feel the stigma of being ‘different’. I’m still working on being more open about being deaf, and just telling people when I meet them instead of struggling to pass as hearing and straining every inch of my being to catch what they say. But it’s difficult to break down those walls you’ve built for yourself out of safety, which is why I’m grateful to those who are surprisingly kind when you’re upfront about your needs. 

Conservation is such a critical area these days and I’m figuring out where I can best use my skills to help where I can. The last two years after graduating (Covid-permitting) I’ve been volunteering where I can to build my experience. To find out what my limits are. To find out what I can and can’t do, and where my skill set can be best applied. As an ornithology graduate, it was crushing finding out how much I just don’t hear during bird point-count and transect surveys, where listening for bird calls is your best bet for finding them and determining species. But I know not all birds have high-pitched calls, and so I will find another way to keep doing what I love. There is still so much to see and discover in this remarkable country, let alone overseas! Sadly though, time is fast becoming a limited resource in conservation, which is why, no matter what, I cannot give up on my goal of helping preserve biodiversity of flora and fauna in some form. Where there is a will, there’s a way, and I’m not done yet! 

If you take one thing away from this, I hope it’s that you realise it’s okay to be afraid. To feel like you’re lost and not know where you’re going. The main thing is to keep going and don’t hesitate to make opportunities for yourself. Share your passions and goals with people, because maybe they can guide you on your journey or know someone who can. I feel that the saying “When one door closes, another one opens” is actually rather limiting; sometimes there are no doors, and you have to get in there and gather the tools you need to make your own damn door. 

For more of Mel, check out @melc.photography on Instagram

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