The more you look around you the more you find that even the most adventurous activities can now be made available to people with disabilities. Whether it’s skiing down the sides of mountains, racing full pelt in motor cars or flying (even jumping out of) a plane, someone with a disability has done it and shown that almost anything is possible as long as someone has the desire and the creativity to adapt the equipment involved. Many people with slightly old fashioned pre-conceptions of disability may think that these activities are not ‘safe’ for disabled people and that they should instead be wrapped in cotton wool, but they’d be very wrong. These days people with disabilities are taking part in all sorts of thrill seeking activities, having fun and changing the way that we think about disability at the same time. After all, why wouldn’t a disabled person be able to explore the skies?
We can also add exploring the depths of the ocean to the list, in the form of scuba diving. In fact, not only is scuba diving an accessible sport for disabled people, it’s actually one of the most accessible around. It’s been said that underwater all divers are disabled as they all require adaptive equipment to breath and swim. So making further adaptive equipment for disabled divers is really just an extra step in making diving possible. There a very few disabilities that mean you cannot dive and it gives people a sense of freedom, weightlessness and increased movement which can only be felt underwater.
A couple of years ago disabled artist, Sue Austin, stunned audiences with a mesmerising video of her scuba diving in her electric wheelchair. The video and its supporting TED Talk became a viral hit and the internet was struck by the powerful image of how assistive equipment allows people to be liberated rather than confined. Austin said that she saw it as “an image that has the power to reshape preconceptions about the wheelchair, I have discovered an object that has the power to change me. It is more like flying than diving and brings the most amazing sense of freedom.” Doubtless disabled scuba diving can be a powerful image for redefining disability but for the majority of people the more important thing is that it’s a fun activity, good for your health and gives you a chance to explore the underwater world. So how can one get involved?
First of all, there’s the IAHD – the International Association of Handicapped Divers – which was set up to teach dive instructors how to train and supervise physically disabled divers. Now a subsidiary of the World Organisation of Scuba Diving (WOSD) the IAHD promotes, develops and executes scuba diving courses for the physically and mentally disabled. The ultimate aim of the IAHD is to enable disabled people to enjoy the same level of quality (dive) training programs, certifications and diving adventures as able-bodied people. They have a number of diving centres around the world but for training purposes there is nothing in the UK as they’re based in Holland.
A better bet therefore is to contact DiveAbility which is a UK charity committed to enabling people who have disabilities or disadvantages to discover the adventurous world of scuba diving. The easiest way to find out if you’ll enjoy scuba diving is to attend one of their try dive sessions. The dive will be conducted at your pace and it’s your opportunity to discover how much fun scuba diving can be. They provide trained staff and talk you through the different equipment to find what will work best for you. Try dives take place once a month at a modern pool facility with easy access to pool side and assistance is available where needed.
Additionally, disabled divers may need different equipment to make moving underwater possible, but doesn’t everyone? No one can scuba dive without kit so these are just extras rather than a completely different experience. A familiarity with equipment used to assist breathing may even be a benefit. There are many different ways of doing so and each person finds their own best fit in terms of adapted equipment, but some of the options include:
Webbed gloves such as the Darkfin Gloves offer up to a 70% increase in the surface area of the hands. This allows divers with limited or no use of their legs to move more quickly and with greater confidence, through the water.
Regulator necklaces, usually made from silicone, are loops worn around the divers’ neck that keep the regulator near the divers’ mouth. For divers who have limited grasp or range of motion in their hands and/ or arms, these necklaces are a great extra layer of precaution.
If using webbed gloves and flippers (i.e. mobility) is not an option the you may be able to use one of the battery-operated propulsion devices that strap onto the divers’ tanks and move them through the water. With the propulsion device you just press a button on the thruster, and away you go.
An even bigger propulsion option, sometimes called diver propulsion vehicles (DVP), or diving scooters, scuba scooters are powered machines that propel divers through the water. If a diver with a disability has enough arm strength to safely control a scuba scooter, it can dramatically increase range and speed of travel underwater.
There is much more equipment and much more to learn than we can cover here, but essentially the idea is to find the right individual blend of equipment to make diving accessible but still let the diver be in control of it.
If you’re interested in scuba diving, the best thing to do is to contact DiveAbility. They can explain the range of equipment and other steps to take to make diving easier for people with disabilities. Every disability is different but we hope that we’ve shown here that, like the skies, the seas are accessible to disabled people!