When it comes to outdoor activities, 35-year-old Mel Stamell has pretty much tried it all: kayaking, climbing, caving, mountain biking, and skiing, her personal favourite. But she’s not your average adrenaline junkie. With a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering, she’s taken on the challenge of building a lot of her own sporting equipment, including a fibreglass kayak.
Creating this equipment hasn’t just been a personal challenge; it’s been a necessity. Mel has a rare form of dwarfism, so most gear that’s commercially available simply doesn’t work for her. While this is a huge hurdle, Mel’s not one to miss out on the fun. She discovered a love of the outdoors through her university’s mountaineering club and recalls a trip at 19 where she was “pretty bummed out” about being unable to participate in sea kayaking because of the equipment.
Motivated entirely by how fun paddling looked, an enthusiastic Mel spent the next few years building her own sea kayak, which ultimately didn’t get much use as her focus had shifted to whitewater kayaking. In the meantime, she’d enjoyed other sports like caving, where her height was often an advantage. In the outdoor community she found a group of people who were open-minded, generous, and patient – teaching her to safely roll when she began whitewater, for example. It’s this social element that she loves most about adventure sports – “When you’re sitting in the pub after a great day out and you’re just talking about the crazy stuff that happened that day – that’s awesome.”
As welcoming as a community may be, the reality is that accessibility in outdoor recreation is often limited by the built environment. Mel explains, “I don’t have the luxury of being able to see what other people are doing and going ‘Okay, that’ll work for me!’” As a result, she’s learnt a lot through trial and error, often with friends present to ensure her safety – something that’s critical when you’re dealing with the great outdoors. She once got repeatedly hit in the face by rocks while trying to bail after capsizing in shallow water. In response, she modified her kayak’s spray deck, putting the strap closer to her face so that she can safely escape if her kayak capsizes. She recognises that she’s in a unique position, having the technical skills and resources required to design her own equipment. And this process isn’t without its own challenges! “A lot of the time I have to adapt the equipment [e.g. angle grinder/saw/drill] I need to adapt or make equipment to go out paddling with. There are a lot of obstacles and I think expecting other people with disabilities to just pull themselves up and do it is a bit simplistic.”
Mel has found a way to use her interests and abilities to help others. Together with twin sister and graphic design extraordinaire Peta, Mel established Little Products, a start-up which is “making the world a more comfortable and accessible space for our kids.” Inspired by her own issues with share housing and office environments, their products currently include the Toggler, which enables kids to easily turn lights on and off. While Little Products is currently a side business, Mel says “I would love to be able to spend all my time inventing products and solving problems for myself that also benefit other people.”
Mel is set to feature in a film, aptly named “Mel”, during the Gutsy Girls Adventure Film Tour later this year. Videographer and friend, Jason McQueen, took footage of Mel kayaking and telling her story over a period of two years. “Mel” will get you thinking about how, with a bit of ingenuity and determination, great satisfaction can come from facing the challenges that life throws at us. Don’t miss it!