Applying for a conservation job with a disability | Advice from aspiring wildlife presenter Ryan Eddowes
Have you ever found yourself reading through job applications and feeling disheartened after seeing requirements such as these?
- “Physically fit for the demands of this role”
- “A suitable level of physical fitness for assisting with the capture and restraint of animals as well as manoeuvring tools (including wheelbarrows)”
- “The role is physically demanding and our site is mainly outdoors, so the ability to deal with all weathers is essential.”
- “The role is both physically and emotionally demanding and you must be prepared for this.”
- “Must have a good level of physical fitness and be able to swim 50 metres fully clothed within 2.5 mins.”
- “Comfortable walking long distances over difficult terrain and working for prolonged periods.”
Requirements like these – taken from advertisements for a zookeeper, field research assistant and animal welfare officer, among others – are put in place to ensure the safety of individuals and their colleagues.
However, these ‘must-haves’ can be discouraging for people who suffer from physical, mental, or chronic illness. In the wake of flare ups, appointments, medication side effects, and mental strain, a person’s capabilities may vary day to day.
While all other job requirements may be met or exceeded, potential employers could unfairly deem individuals unfit for a position.
This article provides advice for those who may be lacking confidence due to their personal circumstance and discusses if better measures should be put in place to encourage those with special needs into careers in conservation?
Ryan Eddowes is a VIP guide at West Midland Safari Park (Bewdley, UK), where he works alongside an array of incredible species, sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge with guests who book once-in-a-lifetime experiences including feeding giraffes or working as a keeper for the day alongside Indian Rhinos.
In addition, he has co-founded Our Cities Wild Islands, a project established with the mission to rewild green spaces in cities and encourage nature to thrive.
Despite all he has been able to achieve so far and his dreams for the future, his journey to get there hasn’t been easy, as he was born with Talipes, a lower limb condition, affecting 1 in 1000 births.
Despite being relatively common, many are unaware of the condition, and little is done to raise awareness. Ultimately, Ryan is aiming to pursue a career as a wildlife presenter and refuses to let his condition hold him back.
Below you will read about Ryan’s journey, the challenges he’s faced and overcame to pursue his passion for wildlife and his ongoing Clubfoot awareness campaign to educate people on the condition and raise money for charity.
What is Clubfoot and your personal experience with the condition?
Ryan was born with Clubfoot or Bilateral Congenital Talipes Equinovarus (CTEV). In simpler terms, the condition effects both feet and is characterised by the foot pointing downwards and the heel turning inwards.
Countless operations throughout childhood and time out of school, severely impacted Ryan’s personal life, mental health, and learning, with years of primary and secondary school spent in a wheelchair. Ryan also experienced a great deal of bullying which affects him to this day.
The situation didn’t improve moving into secondary school; instead, bullying intensified, and Ryan was left with low confidence and self-esteem. Ryan recalls having to skip PE (Physical Education) as bullies would try to swipe his legs, despite knowing how brittle and sensitive they were.
Luckily, Ryan was able to find an escape, during drama lessons at school. Looking back, he realises how this seemingly unrelated experience helped him gain the confidence to get where he is today.
Refusing to let a disability define you
“For the first time, I could play a character that did not have a foot condition, it was a moment of freedom. Over time I became more confident and ambitious. I started to do drama shows, even being in musicals the school put on, I even acted at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre. If it was not for drama, I would still be that scared, shy child and not be where I am today.”
Communicating your needs with employers
At West Midland Safari Park, Ryan works as a VIP guide and at times assists keepers with daily husbandry tasks: cleaning and maintaining enclosures and preparing animal feed. When applying, Ryan made the park aware of his condition and the support he required.
Fortunately, automatic VIP jeeps are used to move transport guest; this alleviates much of the pressure from his feet. However, the park requires keepers and guides to wear steel toe capped boots for safety, but due to the shape of his feet it can be hard to find adequate shoes. West Midland Safari Park allowed Ryan to purchase his own to ensure he is comfortable on his feet and even reimbursed him, as all staff uniform is provided.
He is allowed to rest when required and colleagues are aware of his condition, so if Ryan feels there is something he can’t manage, then a different task can be given. Fortunately, the park has taken the time and effort to understand and accommodate his needs.
Have particular job requirements ever knocked your confidence when applying for a position?
“In short, yes.”
Ryan has previously held back from positions requiring driving across the country; something he would find challenging in a manual car. An automatic car would make this easier, but they are not guaranteed to be available. Ryan has often found this himself feeling he would let employers down in these roles despite having the knowledge and skills required.
More recently, Ryan has applied to many of these jobs and is sure to raise awareness of his condition and any help he may need. From here, it is up to the employer to decide if they can accommodate him.
“This condition does not impair my knowledge, experience, skills and abilities to fulfil a position; the worst that can happen is that I’ll need more breaks than someone who does not suffer from a congenital condition.”
Do you feel discrimination in the workplace is shown to those with disabilities?
“I think people tend to do things very subtly, in terms of not allowing people with conditions to complete the full role. People can come across as patronising and ask too often if we require more help when doing tasks.”
“We now live in a society where I think many are afraid to speak, in case they get something wrong. We cannot live in fear of this. Talking is the best form of communication; you can read everything there is on racism, disabilities, gender, sexuality, and other topics, but if you don’t talk to people and ask how they want to be seen, then everyone will second guess and that’s where things can go wrong.”
“For example, if I start a new role, I’d like to be asked the same questions the employer would ask anyone on how they prefer to work. This is where I can bring up my individual needs and work with my employer to ensure not only my needs are met, but everyone else at the workplace continues to get their needs met too.”
“In efforts to ensure equality for all, it is not the desire to take time or resources away from other staff who do not have disabilities just to create a level playing field. Mental and physical illness doesn’t discriminate, and anyone can fall on hard times. In life and work, everyone should have equal treatment and opportunity.”
“We all have the same beginning and the same end; what we do in the middle is down to personal choice, but this should not affect the way you treat other people around you. One thing my grandad always told me is to be nice to everyone, as when you work your way up, you meet a lot of people. But if something happens and you fall you will most likely meet the same people on the way down; if you used them or lied to them, then they won’t be there to support you on your way down.”
Are adequate measures in place to support those who identify as having a disability and do you think more could be done?
Noticing that many applications are aimed at able-bodies individuals, Ryan feels more should be done to ensure a recruitment process is accessible from start to finish. Interviews can be a great time to educate employers and raise awareness for conditions and personal requirements. However, employer reaction can vary, and fear of rejection may prevent applicants from speaking up.
Ryan is launching a campaign, based off his own experience, in hopes of raising awareness about the need to implement a universal disability policy throughout companies in the United Kingdom – aiming to provide people from all backgrounds a fair chance at entering the workplace.
Another annoyance that Ryan has encountered that is applicable to all staff members is inadequate staff facilities. “Many staff with or without disabilities work long hours and have irregular breaks. When it’s time to have a break there’s often a broken kettle, or no milk for a cup of tea. Often staff rooms have fallen into a state of disrepair or are so small that you cannot fit all the staff in, and some end up seated outside.”
Putting more care into staffing areas, for example providing spaces to sit or radios for music, can allow staff the time and space to relax by themselves or alongside colleagues, particularly on days when an individual needs breaks to make it through the day.
Achieving what you deemed impossible
“On my day off (while working as a wildlife cameraman in Tenerife, Spain), I set myself a challenge to walk up Roque del Conde, which is a tabletop mountain close to where I was staying. Two to three hours into the climb, my feet began to hurt; I rested for a while and then continued.
In my mind, I thought even if I made it to the top, could I climb back down? But after around 6 hours I had made it to the top. The accomplishment brought me to tears. Although I had to take the next day off to rest my feet, I was proud of pushing past my limits while managing the intense pain.”
How can rejection impact a young professional?
Careers in wildlife and conservation can be physically and mentally demanding. Many aspiring biologists have to commit to hours of unpaid volunteering positions to gain valuable practical experience. This may require individuals to juggle multiple jobs alongside education and can contribute to mental strain. In July 2022, Ryan will be celebrating 10 years of working with animals with only 4 years in paid positions.
“There will be a lot of setbacks entering this industry. I still get turned down despite my qualifications and experience. Never take this as bad news; it’s a learning curve. Find out from that company how you can upskill yourself and improve for applications in the future.”
“Create opportunities for yourself; if you like a certain company, find out what they do and send an email asking if you can volunteer or shadow someone. This shows your motivation and enthusiasm and is recognised by employers.”
Do you believe creating barriers to entry into wildlife conservation-based careers can have negative implications for the field?
Individuals striving for a career in conservation are often driven by an immense passion for wildlife, however the field can be competitive and harsh, and it can be common to face rejection. Companies failing support those entering the field could discourage brilliant, young minds from pursuing a career in conservation.
“Now more than ever we need a collection of creative and committed minds to come together and tackle environmental threats such as climate change and habitat fragmentation. [We need] better opportunities for young people to connect with professionals in the industry and gain skills and experience can help people decide if they are on the right career path and build connections and abilities to use in the future.”
“Even since leaving university, I’ve noticed a shift in educational opportunities for younger audiences. There is now a Natural History GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) offered in schools allowing students to learn about the natural world and its finite resources. [This encourages] younger learners to consider their impact on the environment and strive for change can help protect the planet for future generations.”
What made you want to want to become a wildlife presenter?
“When I make my wildlife documentaries I present and narrate them, but this time the character on the screen is me, and, after all these years, I’ve finally realised that’s the only character I need to play. This character does not care for discrimination towards his condition, is not too shy to talk to people and has a passion for the natural world and wanting to make a difference to it.”
Check out Ryan’s show reel!
Do you have advice for approaching an employer to make them aware of your condition and how they can help?
“Honesty is key if you are applying for a role and there are certain aspects of it you’re unsure about because you fear that they won’t accept you because of your condition.”
“Simply give them an informal call, say you’re interested but were wondering how they would be able to accommodate you if you were successful; there’s no harm in asking this. It also allows you to see if they are going to be an accommodating employer.”
“If you feel they are not going to be, then move on to the next one, as your health, happiness and suitability are valuable to you and if a company is not going to show compassion to you and it’s all about the business, then clearly this is not the place for you.”
In 2022 Ryan will be walking the length of the Jurassic Coast (UK) to raise awareness of his condition
Ryan is working with Steps Charity Worldwide, a leading charity helping those whose lives are affected by childhood lower limb conditions. It aims to create a connection between adults living with these conditions and provide financial and emotional support where needed.
“I and STEPS Charity Worldwide want to do more; we want to change government policy on turning the term hidden disability to physical because, for example, I cannot apply for a blue badge status (permits to use closer parking facilities) because I’m not physically disabled. But if I cannot get a parking space near the shop and I have to walk further, it can in my instances cause me more pain and discomfort.”
“There are adults out there a lot older than me where the condition is severely impacting their lives and need this blue badge to ease the hardship. We also want to make links with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and have an advice line.”
“To get all this information out there, I’m walking the full length of the Jurassic Coast (a World Heritage Site spanning 95 miles from Exmouth in East Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset) to raise awareness of the condition. Campaigns tend to lead to the negatives, but I want to ensure the information portrayed is evenly balanced to show things are changing; however, more needs to be done.”
Want to learn more or support? You can read Ryan’s story or donate to his charity here.
Ryan will also be raising donations for Save the Rhino International, a charity working to conserve all five rhino species by supporting rhino conservation programmes across Africa and Asia.
For more inspiration from successful conservationists with disabilities, read our interview with Dr Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at BirdLife International.
Author Profile | Charlotte Munroe
Charlotte is an aspiring zoologist currently in her final year of university. Post degree, she is hoping to become a zookeeper. Having always been passionate about animals and the natural world, she hopes to use this platform to provide advice and use the experience of others to help people like herself working toward a career in conservation.