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  • jeniferfoster2

Diving with a disability

This past weekend, I participated in a training for how to teach people with disabilities how to dive. If I’m honest, I did it because I’m hoping eventually somehow to merge therapy and diving. Since I work primarily with vets with PTSD currently, I figured that having the Handicapped Scuba Association certification would be useful, with regards to getting funding and being able to help students regardless of their background. I also had a sense that it would help me dial in my own buoyancy and make me a better diver. So, I wasn’t exactly taking the class because I’m some saint. (It bothers me when people think this type of thing. Honestly, the work I do is just as beneficial for me as it is for the people I work with. Don’t get it twisted).

As I started reading the training material about the prep work that people with disabilities must go through in order to dive, I started wondering whether or not diving was worth it. Seriously. I mean, the material talked about for someone with quadriplegia, the mere act of defecating can (on a normal basis) take upwards of an hour. Their sphincter muscles don’t work, and so the muscles must be manually stimulated. Then, their abdomen muscles don’t work, so they have to wait for the bowel movement to move out of their body. I had never thought about going to the bathroom and what would happen for people who couldn’t move their muscles. Never. The material made me think about it. I was floored. Can you imagine how much work it takes to do basic, trivial tasks? Holy smokes! The material also talked about how the prep work for diving could take up to five hours. FIVE HOURS! Now, if you haven’t thought about it – even for an abled-bodied person, prepping to dive can take a minute. Scuba is an equipment-heavy sport. I can generally be ready in about fifteen minutes to a half-hour, give or take, depending on the situation. But, five hours?! I am not sure I would dive at all if it took me five hours to prepare, and I absolutely love diving.

This training blew me away! For the parts of the weekend when we weren’t in the water, we were in a wheelchair. This part I had considered before – how difficult it must be to have to navigate crappy sidewalks, and areas that had no ramps. However, having to navigate around corners, through doors, on crappy sidewalks, over walkways with slight hills were all infinitely harder than with legs. We watched a video of people in wheelchairs navigating beaches. I never considered wheelchairs in sand before. Good lord. We also talked about how to bring wheelchairs up and down stairs (or from a dock to a boat). There is so much to be considered! We talked about travel, and how so many times, wheelchairs have been damaged traveling because many airport/airline staff are not properly trained. My instructors informed us that a person he had traveled with had a $4,000 wheelchair broken because it was carelessly moved – literally returned with a wheel broken off. That wheelchair is someone’s independence! That’s their way of getting around. The individual arrived on an island with no means of getting around and the airline saying there was no one that could fix it! We also talked about things such as having to get to the bathroom mid-flight. Can you imagine?! Often, even getting someone onto a plane is challenging. How in the world is someone dependent on a wheelchair able to get to a bathroom, into a bathroom and out and back to their seat without significant help? With that significant help (if it exists at all) how do you get two (or three) people into an airplane bathroom?

And these stories are just a small sliver of what was discussed over the weekend. But, then we moved to the pool. Can I tell you just how humbling it is to be led without the benefit of sight through a pool? I had been skeptical before about why a sight-impaired person would want to dive, but diving and seeing things through touch rather than visually gave me a significantly different perspective. Feeling the water, the walls of the pool and the aquarium, hearing the sounds it was a wild experience. But, think about trust! Can I tell you, it was one thing diving in a pool without the benefit of sight, but the aquarium was a whole other ballgame! The aquarium was chock-full of fish, rays, eels, rocks, fake corals – i.e., all things which could be dangerous. Also, many of the swimming areas of the aquarium were narrow – making it much harder to be able to move around. Having to trust someone else to keep me safe – especially someone who I had really just met – was a whole other dimension. What really blows me away about this was that both the pool and the aquarium, I had actually SEEN both prior to letting someone navigate me around. What it must be like to be sight impaired and to go into the ocean (or an aquarium, lake, quarry) without the benefit of having been there before sighted is mind-blowing (especially for anyone who might have trust issues to begin with).

OH – not having sight is one thing! We also had to practice leading someone with quadriplegia (and being led as someone with quadriplegia) around both the pool and the aquarium. If you haven’t been diving before, there is much that needs to happen. For instance, the air pressure changes from shallow water to deep (you’ve experienced air pressure changes if you’ve ever dove to the bottom of a pool or ridden on a plane). In diving, you must “clear your ears” – such that you equalize the air pressure in your ears (people have actually burst their ear drums before because they haven’t equalized properly). Also, occasionally diving, it is possible to get water in your mask. If you are down deep, it would be absurd to have to go to the surface every time that happened, so one skill that one must learn when diving is how to rid the mask of that water (“clear” the mask). So, part of the activities we had to experience was having our leader help us clear our ears and remove, replace and clear our mask. Oh boy! Clearing a mask is a task that quite often freaks divers out. I have spent countless hours dealing with divers’ anxiety revolved around clearing their mask, and I’m pretty new at this job of instructing! Goodness – having someone else do that for you is nerve-wracking! The first time in the pool that we practiced (in the shallow end, thankfully), I got a nose full of water, because the mask wasn’t put down of my face far enough, and the mask didn’t seal around my nose. But, I have the use of my hands really, so after several minutes of the person leading me failing to understand the problem, I lifted my arms up and fixed the mask myself.

I watched the instructor lead prior to us practicing leading. The instructor wrapped her legs around the person she was leading as they descended in the water, because otherwise, the diver’s legs might impede the descent by floating in one area or the next. After watching, I was first to take the next diver down. So, I’m faced with wrapping my legs around a male who I just met or having to try to negotiate his legs floating without doing so. I chose the latter, because it seemed so intimate – both for me and for him – that it made me uncomfortable. (I got over this later in the weekend – but, it definitely made me stop and think).

So, you may be thinking, like I was initially, why someone with disabilities would ever want to dive? But, one thing that was made clear to me (by doing it myself as a “disabled” diver and by watching videos of people with true disabilities diving) was that water, regardless of whether one has to be led or not, is the true equalizer. People with disabilities can feel free and independent diving. They can fly over the cliffs (walls), flip around, breathe, enjoy and live. How incredible is that?

And – I don’t know – this three-day training has changed me. I have such an awe for how incredible the human spirit is! One of the things that has always inspired me about counseling is that I’ve worked with people who have faced inconceivable hardships: they’ve faced traumas that I cannot even truly fathom. Yet, they are willing to try to overcome them. It is remarkable and inspiring. Hearing about all of the challenges that people with physical disabilities face, just by simple every-day tasks, I was overwhelmed. But, watching people overcome them, cope with them, accept them and go on to do something like diving, its astonishing. People are so incredibly strong. I’m not saying it is easy. But, people keep going; they keep living; they keep enjoying life. That is beautiful and motivating.

It puts life back in perspective. If people can overcome so much adversity, what’s my problem? No more excuses!

I hope you find something that inspires you today!

“We all find joy and radiance and a reason to move on even in the most dire of circumstances. Even in chaos and madness, there's still a beauty that comes from just the vibrancy of another human spirit.” ~Ishmael Beah

** picture of woman in wheelchair on beach taken from

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