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Finding a place for people with disability in nature

21 February 2022 at 5:40 pm
Maggie Coggan
Mathew Townsend is the founder of Nature Freedom, an organisation making the great outdoors accessible to people with disability. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 21 February 2022 at 5:40 pm


Finding a place for people with disability in nature
21 February 2022 at 5:40 pm

Mathew Townsend is the founder of Nature Freedom, an organisation making the great outdoors accessible to people with disability. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Growing up in the picturesque Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, Mathew Townsend spent as much time as he could in nature, whether it be bush walking, kayaking or camping. 

Wanting to turn his passion for the natural world into a job, he completed a bachelor of environmental science and a masters of environmental management. But even with these qualifications, he struggled to find meaningful work. 

Townsend has autism and lost his hearing at 18 months old, creating barriers to finding a job he loves. He found employers didn’t understand his disabilities, and he has struggled to fit in within the environmental sciences and sustainability industries. 

So in 2017, he started Nature Freedom, an organisation making the natural world accessible for people with disability by running events and programs such as camping, kayaking, clay painting, making beeswax wraps, growing food and helping in community gardens that everyone can access.  

It is also in the process of developing skills training programs to help people with disability get the skills they need to work in sustainability and the outdoors. 

Townsend has been named as one of this year’s AMP Foundation Tomorrowmakers, receiving grant funding to grow and expand the work of Nature Freedom. 

In this week’s Changemaker, Townsend discusses the value of being included, the importance of collaboration, and why he loves his job. 

What led you to starting Nature Freedom?

I have a background as an environmental scientist, and a big love for nature. Unfortunately, I often felt left out of the environment and sustainability groups, and finding employment. I felt really isolated and I couldn’t share my passion with other people. So that’s when I went out on my own as a sole trader. So what we do is actually create meaningful participation and inclusive experiences for young people with disability. We go out and enjoy activities like paddle boarding, and environmental arts and crafts. 

One of the aspects of your organisation is hoping to create employment opportunities for people with disability. How are you going to make that happen? 

So we want to create training and employment pathways in the environmental science and sustainability industries. So that might be anything from a kayak instructor or a bushwalking guide, anything involved in the ecotourism industry really. At the moment, there’s a lack of employment opportunities for people with disability in these spaces, and also there’s a gap in the market which we are trying to fill. 

What kind of difference has the organisation made to people with disability since starting? 

I think our biggest impact comes from the inclusion we provide. We create a space that people with disability can socialise in in a meaningful way which I think is really great.

How important is collaboration? 

I think that other organisations are really open to the way we run Nature Freedom. They want to see diversity in their workplaces, which is great because we can develop partnerships. It’s been so nice to be able to communicate with outside organisations because we can further their understanding of what a disability organisation looks like and really help them understand what inclusion looks like.  

And what do you love most about your job?

Just getting out there and being in nature is what I love. It’s obviously also about creating opportunities for people with disability to enjoy nature, and to learn those employment skills too, but I find that bushwalking is so important to my happiness, and I love to see other people doing the same thing. The whole point of Nature Freedom is giving them [people with disability] a way to connect with nature and have that experience that I love so much, so it’s really cool to be able to do that everyday. 

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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