My Blind Ambition
It is easy to get caught up in life sometimes. Putting off what you really want to do and taking things like your health for granted. But when Melanie Chatfield, at the age of 20, was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa that results in blindness she decided that wasn't her. Whilst it was an incredibly difficult message to hear, it motivated her to want to see and experience every inch of the world while she could.
We were first introduced to Melanie, now 40 years old, via a friend, who wanted us to know her story. Her courage, resilience, sense of ambition and want to experience the world before she lost her sight completely led her to apply for the 2016 Holman Prize. for Blind Ambition, which funds the dreams and ambitions of blind people worldwide. It is this video that inspired this interview.
With a different and now necessary approach to seeing the world, Mel explains 'While I scramble to fill my brain with images before my sight fades, I have learned that travel for me is no longer just about seeing. I now explore places with all my senses. It is a feeling and an experience that takes over my whole body.'
I distinctly remember one of the days hiking in the Nar Phu Valley in Nepal. The sun was warm on my skin. My ears were filled with the sounds of tinkling yak bells and a lady calling out to her kids. I felt the weight of my bag on my shoulders and the security of the walking poles in my hands. I breathed in the dust as it swirled around and felt the breeze on my face. My legs felt strong and good. A feeling of intense joy had spread from the pit of my stomach and right across my chest. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I felt so lucky to be there.
Your video entry for the Holman Prize - Blind Ambition project speaks of your desire to go dog sledding in Alaska, was there a reason for this adventure?
The Aurora Borealis can be heard above the ambient sound of the natural environment. Even if I can’t see it, perhaps I could hear it. And the sled dogs respond to voice commands, a perfect way to drive for someone who can’t see. As a vision impaired person, my opportunity to drive and be in control of directing transport is significantly limited. Driving 8 perfect sets of eyes by sound and feel offers a unique and exhilarating opportunity to experience this freedom.
In the hush of the Alaskan winter wilderness, I will be able to hear the footfall and panting of the dogs, the crunch of the sled on snow, the wind in the spruce trees, and the crackle of the night fire. Perhaps even the growl of a bear.
One of the hardest parts of having Retinitis Pigmentosa is being night-blind. Being enveloped in darkness strips me of any ability to use my eyes. So why go to Alaska in winter when the average daylight hours are half that of my hometown of Perth, Western Australia?
There is something about pushing yourself to do the things that are hard. That makes you uncomfortable. Every time I push my boundaries they move just that little bit further away and I grow and learn a bit more. It took me ages to stop worrying about what other people’s boundaries were and just focus on my own. While driving a dog sled might be a simple task for some, it offers me a personal challenge and that is what is most important.
What impact has adventure had on you and why is it important that you share with others your dream? What do you hope to achieve?
As a kid growing up I really sucked at team sports. I didn’t know I couldn’t see and so was a dismal failure at anything that involved a ball or required hand-eye coordination. As a result, I missed out on the wonderful opportunities that being involved in sports offers. I withdrew and lost confidence to participate at all.
Years later, with the help of some supportive friends, I discovered that in fact there were many things I could do. I started trying different activities like hiking, horse-riding, skiing, snorkelling, and dancing.
Being physically active, exploring new places, getting out in nature and making new friends has had a huge impact on how I feel about myself. Social isolation and inactivity can have a significant effect on your mental health. It’s normal to feel anxious about trying something new. Worrying about whether you will be any good at it, how others might perceive you and if you will embarrass yourself. But I have learned if you can find that little bit of courage to try and let go of the worries, the adventure will reward you in so many ways.
Through my story, my hope is to help others pause and think about their own lives. Consider what it is that they want to do. Encourage them to look at what might be holding them back. Challenge their own assumptions about who they are and what they are capable of. Importantly, I also want people to reach out and help others find their own courage too.
You have sought funding through the Holman Prize previously. Why do you think it’s an exciting prospect that through Travel Play Live Women's Adventure Grant women will have the opportunity to have their adventure dreams funded?
Opportunities like the Holman Prize and the TPL Women’s Adventure Grant offer people the chance to extend themselves and fulfill a dream. Like exploring the wild landscape of Alaska. A place so unfamiliar from what I know and in a way I could only ever imagine. I entered the Holman Prize in the spirit of James Holman who was the first blind person to circumnavigate the world. Such an accomplishment would’ve required a keen sense of adventure, determination and a spectacular ability to cope with challenges.
While many of us may not desire something so epic, most of us do have a place we want to visit or an experience we want to have. For some, financial hardship can be a significant barrier to realising this dream. Reducing or removing the financial challenge opens the opportunity for more people to experience the pleasure, pride, and accomplishment that comes from being adventurous and achieving something you have set out to do.
As you have previously applied for funding for the Holman Prize, what value do you think a mentorship program (beyond the grant), would have in regards to equipping the applicants and also recipients with skills that will support their future endeavours?
There has been a significant shift in the way people now engage with and contribute to, causes, as well as ever-increasing competition for funding. Technology and social media mean we now have access to people from all over the world. It’s easier to find like-minded communities and others who may be supportive. But it also means many of us are bombarded with information all day every day and so it can be difficult to cut through.
Knowing how to craft a great message, formulate a solid plan and pick your audience so that your idea is relevant, engaging and worthy is a real skill. Mentorship would provide a wonderful opportunity to learn from people who have real experience, great networks and no doubt a few life hacks to share.
Melanie's last sentence summed up the importance of a support network and mentoring program. 'We are all learning all the time and the more we can help one another, the greater our chance of being a better and more inclusive community.'