Mel Harrison: Outstanding in the Driver’s Seat

Which word best describes the energy and dedication of someone who creates meaningful change for people living with disability? We think ‘Drive’; and her entry as a driver in the Spring Shitbox Rally (October 2022) is a great wider analogy for our friend Mel Harrison, who has dedicated her life to finding sustainable solutions for people with disability and supporting great causes – including ambassador to many of our disability expos over the past six years.    

Mel will be the first person in a wheelchair to ever compete in the Shitbox Rally, a strategic race traversing more than 3,500 km on sealed and unsealed desert roads. A biannual event raising money for the Cancer Council, Impact Institute is sponsoring Mel and her teammate Jacob, who will begin the rally with seven vehicles (14 people in total), each containing a pilot and co-pilot.   

A condition of entry is that cars must be worth no more than $1,500, cannot be a 4WD or an AWD – only a 2WD – and both people in the car must be able to drive. These are mind-blowing limitations when it comes to the conditions they will encounter! Crews fix their own vehicles when they break down and rely on each other to get across the finish line. If one car stops in a team of seven, all seven cars must stop. If a vehicle is irreparable, drivers may be transferred to other vehicles within the team. A total of 500 people and 250 cars will attempt this challenging fete.  

These are the kinds of conditions Mel is literally and metaphorically familiar with. For her, it’s not necessarily about getting to a destination fast, but about teamwork; it’s not necessarily been about cruising and comfort, but about overcoming the realities to achieve success and make things better for everyone.   

“You can do more when you have the right support,” she says, the key to her advocacy, which has focused on helping people experiencing violence in the disability sector.  

It’s estimated by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare that 1 in 2 Australian adults with disability (47%) have experienced violence since the age of 15, and 3 in 4 Australians with disability (74%) out of those who have experienced violence, have experienced multiple incidents, compared with 6 in 10 (62%) of those without disability. Access to support and resources is limited compared to those provided for mainstream domestic violence survivors. Mel has been involved in a project to open accessible refuges for people with disability, with one in Orange welcoming survivors since March 2021.  

Mel and her Shitbox Rally co-pilot Jacob Graham from Access Adventures bought what was once the wheelchair-accessible Toyota Tarrago taxi responsible for transporting her to work, medical appointments, and social events. Mel has a lot of great memories from that time, so is super excited to be able to drive it in the rally. If you saw it in the street, you might be less impressed. You’d probably doubt it would even make it to Mackay for the start of the rally, let alone endure nine days (including the 2 days of travel to Mackay to start the rally) of six-to-nine hours driving with 950,000 kilometres on the clock before they even start! While it’s now outfitted with Total Ability satellite hand controls to make the vehicle accessible for Mel, who uses only her hands to drive, this is the only concession to her disability.   

Mel will camp for six nights enroute to the finish line. On the fourth night, Mel and Jacob can enjoy cabin accommodation that is accessible for people using wheelchairs, but for the remaining nights, they will stay in tents. This isn’t something Mel’s particularly put off by, although on nights 3 and 5 they will camp in locations that are not wheelchair accessible. However, “just because nobody’s done this in a wheelchair before, doesn’t mean I won’t do it. We’ll make it work. People with disability just want to join mainstream activities and travel around. I’ve found the rally organisers great – they’ve been researching everything to make it as accessible as possible!”  

Because she’ll be spending many long hours sitting in a car, she will need to exercise as often as possible. “I’ll have off-road tyres for my wheelchair and push around to loosen up… I figure that I may not be able to change the circumstances life serves up to me, but I can control my response,” she says and invites people to follow her experience on Facebookand Instagram.   

Mel has used a manual wheelchair since the age of 14. Her lifetime of medical problems has resulted in many surgeries and hospital stays, but this has never stopped Mel from living life and challenging herself to grow, encouraging others along the way. Despite what others view as a disability, Mel has sailed from Tasmania to Sydney and France to Holland, skied, camped, bushwalked, and travelled the world seeking adventures (including climbing the Acropolis)! She defies labels others might impose on her and won’t allow a little difficulty or discomfort to stop her. She will soon take part in the world’s ‘toughest’ road half-marathon: the 2022 Point to Pinnacle, pushing herself in her chair up at least 1,270m of above-10% gradients in potentially extreme weather conditions with a team of 4 friends.  

Founder of Sitting Low; Reaching High, Mel is a motivational speaker, educator, blogger, and influencer. She breaks down barriers and demonstrates exactly how people with disability can still explore life; including fitness, travel, work and recreation. Her philosophy as an advocate is simple:  

  1. Inspire 
  2. Educate 
  3. Facilitate 

“You never know someone’s ability until you give them the opportunity to explore it,” she says. The majority of those she meets as an ambassador of the My Future, My Choice disability expos are people who live with cognitive disabilities. Her goal is to break down barriers to help people communicate more effectively and inspire others to challenge their self-perceptions and find ways to advocate for themselves (or their loved ones) to overcome limits.  

“The greatest thing about Impact Institute disability expos is that they are such a great lot of people to partner with. They understand that disability is normal – and they accept and treat everyone that way.”