Written by Jenna Woodford
Where are all the disabled conservationists?
Over the last couple of years, I’ve asked myself this question a lot. Like many people, I’ve searched in vain to find representation in the field I so desperately want to dedicate my career to. And I’ve decided that I’m going to do something about it.
I took the usual route into conservation – developed a love of nature from a young age, studied for a degree in Natural Sciences, volunteered at a nature reserve for six months and started applying for my first conservation job – but to do that I was wearing mask over mask over mask. I don’t mean the kind of mask we’ve all been wearing recently; I mean the invisible masks that people carefully craft to hide the parts of themselves that don’t conform to the expectations of those around them. And even that didn’t work.
I was working in yet another customer service job (while still fruitlessly applying for that elusive first role in conservation) when I had a health crisis. Looking back, I can see that this was inevitable given how much energy it was taking me to hide so much. So, the mask hiding the pain and health issues I’d struggled with all my life was the first to fall, and I had to give up my job. My neurotypical mask quickly followed. And then I finally realised – to heck with this, I’ve got no career to lose! I’ve got to be me! And I joyously threw my gender-conforming mask away too.
So now this disabled, autistic, non-binary conservationist is coming out of the pit of despair that was applying for highly competitive jobs on a very unlevel playing field: I’m making a career of my own in a way that is accessible to me.
My dream of studying awesome species in beautiful habitats will have to wait, maybe forever. But my goal now is to create space in the sector for everyone who has been made to feel that, in order to be successful, we must hide who we are and keep quiet about our needs. Others are doing amazing work driving forward the causes of LGBT+ people, people of underrepresented ethnicities and other marginalised groups in conservation. I’m going to focus on increasing the representation of the whole spectrum of disabled people in my nature writing and journalism, and showing up in my work my way.
Some uplifting work by neurodiverse and disabled people in conservation:
Jack Wright has written a great blog for A Focus on Nature about being a disabled conservationist.
Autistic naturalist and author Dara McAnulty has just released his second book, Wild Child, aimed at young nature enthusiasts.
Shameless plug! My interview with Dr Stuart Butchart for Conservation Careers has lots of advice for budding scientists and conservationists with disabilities.
Other Lonely Conservationists writing about health problems/disabilities include Mel, Roxanne and Annabel and Lonely Conservationists podcasts exist on Chronic Illness and LGBTQIA+ issues.
For more of Jenna, check out @JennaWoodford on Twitter