Andre Brebion was an adventurous student at the University of North Florida, studying to become a conservation biologist. It was the end of spring break and he had been mountain biking all day, when he took a jump that would change his life. He went over the top of his handlebars, fracturing his neck. The injury left him a C6-C7 quadriplegic. After multiple surgeries and physiotherapy, Andre has some arm movement but limited upper body strength and is wheelchair bound. But that has not stopped him from continuing his career in conservation. He is nearly through his undergraduate degree and is already planning to continue to a master’s degree.
I first met Andre at a marine biology conference after we got chatting waiting in line at a mentoring event and shared our interests in science communication and outreach. For International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Andre was kind enough to share with me what it's like to be in the field of wildlife conservation with a disability.
Chris: “Thank you for joining us, Andre, and sharing your story. First of all, you went back to studying conservation quite soon after your injury. How hard did you find it continuing in the wildlife conservation field? In particular, what was it like getting out to your field sites?”
Andre: “It was a pretty stark change initially. I was six feet tall and 200 pounds, and many of the tasks I had performed included lifting heavy equipment and taking care of physical tasks in the field.
But it was really more of a personal mental battle. It's less the physical environment itself. If you really want to put yourself out there, and you really push yourself to put in the work, to put in time researching options, and to really prepare yourself to ask for help, then there's a lot more accessibility available to you.
In my case, I was in the conservation field and now I'm focusing on Geographical Information Systems (GIS). It primarily involves working at a desk using a computer. It's a lot of data processing and there are a lot of different sources I can draw from. For example, I can use satellite imaging in my work. But, when I'm actually out in the field, I usually go with other people and they can help me get to the study site. Humans are the best resource!”
Chris: “What about at your university? What was it like to navigate around campus?”
Andre: “Actually, before my accident I had a couple of friends in wheelchairs and through them I learned all the paths around campus that were easier for them. For example, doors that you can open with a button and where there’s enough room to maneuver a wheelchair. One of my friends is in a really large power chair, so there were a lot of places she couldn't go—I would have to open the door and help her. But once I was in the wheelchair, the real problem was being strong enough to go uphill and then jump over cracks and potholes and things like that. Although it got easier with time, it’s a constant battle… pebbles are the worst, I think!
However, if I have any issues, like the constant problem of the automatic doors not working, then I'll let people know within that building, and they usually get things fixed within the week.”
Chris: “What about working in the laboratory?”
Andre: “Post-accident, it became a bit of a problem. For example, the fact that microscopes and other laboratory equipment is at eye level for people who are crouching down, but not at wheelchair level. Thankfully, I had a lot of luck with one of my professors. She was really responsive and gave me the time to look around the lab and see what needed to be changed. Also, I worked with one of the grad students to make things more accessible.”
Chris: “So, the advice you’d give someone with a disability, who is thinking about a wildlife conservation career, is the need for perseverance and to be open to asking people for help. But are there any specific challenges that you've come across?”
Andre: “Yeah, I mean everything I do has challenges all the time. One issue is that you have to be realistic about what you can and can’t do. I could go out into the field and see a steep, rocky hill and think, what the heck, I'll go up that anyway. But I shouldn’t. You have to look at working in the field more as a job with rules and regulations that you give yourself.
If you do that, you also avoid putting pressure on the other people around you, working with you. I find that people either don't understand your situation and they often try to over-correct, which means they try to protect you from everything all the time. Or they take you way too much at your word when you say “no, I can do this” and let you do whatever you want, even though it could get you into difficulties. There’s not really a middle ground unless they understand your disability. So, you need to understand yourself better, to know your limits, so that you can take that pressure off the other people around you.”
Chris: “You don’t only go out into nature for your research though—you are quite an outdoorsy person. How able are you to take part in recreation in the great outdoors? What sort of issues have you encountered there?”
Andre: “I actually just went water skiing a couple of months ago! I do go out to national and state parks. There are wheelchair accessible trails, although they may only cover about 10% of the park. But they are curated trails that are very accessible. I’ve tried to get into kayaking, the trips are held in the middle of the day and that’s difficult to do with classes and the research work, but Brooks Rehabilitation has a program.
Brooks Rehabilitation’s adaptive sports and recreation program is fabulous and has lots of activities. If you're within their network and you're close enough for them to pick you up, they will bring you to all these events. I'm one of their sponsored athletes for rugby.
In fact, people had kept pushing me to try all the activities they offered. But for a while I was depressed to the point where I didn't know I was depressed, and I just didn't want to do them. But, when I finally started doing them, I was like: “I'm such an idiot, why didn’t I do this before? It's free! And I get to meet other people who have been through similar situations and I get to learn from them." That’s the best thing about it. It's not just figuring out you can do athletics—or rowing or rugby—it's really the people who go to these events that you have conversations with, that you learn from. People that you can get hope and inspiration from, who can give you all the things to actually keep you going—that's what matters!”
Chris: “Is there anything you would like to see in terms of making outdoor activities more accessible?”
Andre: “I wish there wasn't so much involvement with medical insurance when it comes to getting accessibility to things like offroad bikes or all terrain wheelchairs, because if there wasn’t I would have three of these chairs by now and I'd be outdoors a lot more! But instead, I have to fill in form after form and show that I need one of these for a medical reason—instead of getting it just because I want one to go exploring. The process takes months, then if it's denied by my insurance, I have to try to get a grant. Even then, if they approve a grant, it might take a while to get a chair because they need to get my measurements and I need to try it out. It’s not like going out and buying a bike… there’s so much more paperwork and it takes a lot longer! So, cutting down the paperwork and making it easier to get equipment for recreation would be an easy fix.”
Chris: “What about going wildlife watching?”
Andre: “This is getting easier and easier thanks to technology drones, especially the quieter drones that are coming out, that won’t disturb wildlife. If you have really poor manual dexterity though, I’d definitely recommend getting a gimbal [camera stabilizer]. They're not too expensive, but if your hands are shaky, you could attach one to your chest to hold your camera. If you have a really good drone with a really good camera, you can zoom in on animals from really far away. They won't even notice it's there.
A wheelchair is rather loud, believe it or not, and so you can't creep up on wildlife. Also, there aren’t many vantage points for wildlife watching that are accessible. So, you need a drone sometimes just so you can get past barriers and go to certain locations.
For example, the DJI Mini 3 Pro has a good camera, and the drone is so small that most animals don't even really notice it's there. It also doesn't have that whining motor sound that a lot of the bigger drones have. Technology is making things easier."
Chris: “Thanks, Andre, it’s been great chatting with you. Before we wrap up, do you have any final messages for those in wildlife conservation to help improve accessibility for the disabled?”
Andre: “The real issue is creating an environment that sees us less as disabled and more as people that just might need a different route. It’s really more about how adaptive our society is to our needs. It's not just “oh, you're in a wheelchair, you should have more things adapted to wheelchairs.” This goes for anybody with a disability, even those disabilities that you can't see.
My solution, if I can't go out into the field or a certain environment, is for me to be OK with it. Instead, I am going to work out a different route to be engaged in conservation. For example, I’m going to learn how to use a drone so I get my eyes as close as possible to wildlife, even if my body can’t. It’s all about adaption… and knowing when to ask for help.”
This is a blog written from the experience of Defenders of Wildlife’s Chris Parsons. We understand that the privilege of access to nature is not universal, and as recent events have illuminated, neither is the privilege of safety in neighborhoods or equal treatment under the law. When people of color cannot walk, drive, jog or birdwatch freely in the communities—where we all live—how can our natural spaces ever deliver benefits equitably for all? We are committed to ensuring a safe and healthy future for all of us.