Perched precariously on the edge of a tiny, well-worn dive boat off of Little Corn Island, Nicaragua, on the western rim of the Caribbean is an unusual place for a person with a disability to find herself. This is a new challenge, I think. Looking into the face of Jefferson, captain of La Sirena, I see more than a small hint of fear in his eyes as I lean back and off of the edge. There is a moment in SCUBA diving after you lean out, but before you hit the water where focus changes and all thoughts stop except for one. Am I really doing this? Then splash, the salt hits you and you know that you are.
Throughout life I have defined myself in many ways. Sister, daughter, friend, traveler, writer and proud person with a disability, to name a few. However, occasionally the “dis” portion of disability can threaten to overpower the other definitions. Doctors with grave expressions apologize for not being able to do more for a body that they feel only works against me. It's difficult not to internalize this picture and let it take over. It's easy to drift along letting other people's ideas of what a life with a disability is take hold. I know that I am more than my symptoms. I know that I can adapt and thrive in unlikely situations, but sometimes I need reminding.
Luckily, the last time I found myself sinking into one of these ruts a friend suggested SCUBA. It was one of the most outlandish ideas I’d ever heard. Listening to such suggestions, undertaking something solely for fun, surprising myself with newfound capabilities and a new positive definition, is the quickest and best way I’ve found out of the “dis” doldrums. Who doesn’t feel great about themselves while learning something new and amazing?
With some research I had the great fortune to find Melvin Pasley of the Disabled Veterans SCUBA Project and the Handicapped SCUBA Association. The training he gave me went above and beyond that which an able-bodied person would receive. He explained everything until it was thoroughly understood and exercised extreme patience while I struggled with certain skills until I figured out my own way. Through this training I gained the knowledge and confidence to travel to Nicaragua and dive. I surprised myself with my own capabilities and was able to rise to a challenge that many able-bodied people would consider too physically demanding to attempt.
Yes, SCUBA is great exercise. It has allowed me to regain some mobility in my shoulder. A possibility I hadn’t even considered as someone who’s had Rheumatoid Arthritis since early childhood. Much more importantly, it is the adventure of a lifetime, every time. Through diving I’ve met amazing friends, had a colossal amount of fun and regained the confidence to travel to distant lands.
Ryan Nichols, an avid diver of three years and a C6 quadriplegic for eighteen, explains, “No matter how many times I do it, it just immediately shocks the system. It’s like, I am in the freaking ocean! This huge body of water around me and I’m breathing just fine. You’re totally in control of something.” He goes on to explain his favorite diving memory, “I was in the Bahamas and I went down about seventy feet. I just lay down on my back and watched Caribbean sharks swim. They weren’t super big, they were just kind of hanging out. I got to watch them and totally chill out. I thought, ‘this is the most awesome thing ever’.”
When I started certification training, part of me assumed that I would do the required dives, get the card and have a story to tell. During that first open water dive off Catalina Island, I was hooked. The kelp swayed in the current, teeming with life. Fish of every color and description swam peacefully by, equally fascinated by the divers as we were by them. In that moment a whole world opened up. Nichols says it best, “Once you try SCUBA diving it will build your confidence and the next thing you know, you don’t want to stay at home. You’re traveling. You can go to some of the most beautiful places in the world and dive.”
If you are looking for the adventure of a lifetime please join us at the Abilities Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center March 30 - April 1. Diving can be adapted for nearly any form of disability, and our booth will represent both the Handicapped SCUBA Association and the Disabled Veterans SCUBA project, so all are welcome. More information and instructor referrals can be found at http://www.disabledveteransscubaproject.org.
Seventy percent of the earth is covered in water. Isn’t it time you explored it?