Disabled in… the water

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Yes, the disabled can dive…

So this weekend I found myself getting up insanely early for a Saturday and dragging out my very dusty dive gear from the cupboard to help out a great organisation called Diveheart.

Diveheart began life in the USA to help the disabled get their life mojo back, by showing them disability does not mean inability.

Here’s a link if you want to know more: Diveheart

I met its Malaysian organiser Syed Rahman at the Singapore dive show ADEX last month and agreed to come along to help out as I’m a qualified PADI dive instructor, although I’ve not been diving myself since losing my ability to walk in 2015.

So we trekked out to Kuala Lumpur’s suburbs to give a group of disabled people a scuba ‘experience’, to show them what it’s like to breathe underwater and the sensation of weightlessness being in water provides.

Water therapy – or hydrotherapy – is often used in rehabilitation medicine anyway, so it’s a win-win. You get to do something fab and benefit by doing it.

Now if you’ve never scuba dived you don’t know what you’ve been missing. The underwater world IS amazing. I’ve personally dived all over Asia and Micronesia, and spent four months working on the Tahiti Aggressor dive boat in French Polynesia. I found the turtle pictured above in the Maldives. But I love the big stuff, the small stuff, the colours, the currents.  And I’m not afraid of sharks!

Here’s a leopard shark in Thailand’s Andaman Islands for good measure…

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But learning to dive can be pretty challenging even if you’re perfectly able bodied, so for the disabled it might appear quite daunting.

We had a range of disabilities – neurological (me), a tetraplegic guy who’d lost the use of three limbs through a road traffic accident, amputees and even one who was visually impaired.

While you might ask how can a person who can’t see dive, Charles Rowe, who brought Diveheart to Singapore and Malaysia, insists blind divers can make great commercial divers in places where visibility is zero. For example because the water’s really murky or because it’s dark.

And because the visually impaired often have a greater sense of touch they can excel at things like underwater welding where touch and sound are vital. Imagine being asked to weld shut a hole in the side of a sunken boat for example. They get their air from the surface, not a scuba tank, so there’s no danger a blind diver will ever run out of the important stuff.

Normally when you’re doing something like a scuba try out you’d have one instructor to several students. With Diveheart it’s the other way around – one student to an instructor and two assistants. So there’s plenty of help. Just getting in the water needed two!

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After a quick briefing on signalling (Up, Down, OK, not OK) and some pointers on how to clear a mask, it was time to take the first breath. Non-divers find this a bit weird as you’re breathing through your mouth not your nose.

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But once you’ve got the hang of that, it’s face down and away you go. Lots of splashing, oohs and aahs later and lots of happy faces.

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While this wasn’t a full Discover Scuba dive, it did give our would-be divers a feel of what open water diving is like. And with the right support anything’s possible.

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For  organiser Syed this inaugural event went off perfectly. “The smiles on their faces said it all.”

And should those who took part want to take it further dive centres around Asia are beginning to cater for the wheelchair bound.

(Ok here’s the ad part)

Utopia resort and spa in Puerto Galera, Philippines has one wheelchair accessible room. Utopia Resort and Spa  Owner Kelvin says PWDs (people with disabilities) get special discounts. (Do you really need a reason to try it out?)

And just round the headland also in Puerto Galera El Galleon resort El Galleon Asia Divers is about to upgrade two of its rooms to suit those in wheelchairs.

Owner Allan was inspired to create more disabled friendly spaces after a visit by a Belgian teacher, who only learned to dive after becoming disabled.

Allan told me: “John was an incredible inspiration and someone who ignores his handicap and shows no sign of giving up, [and] this is what I found amazing. He showed no sign of frustration having to do what he has to do, to do what he wants. If I had to work so hard to get into a wetsuit as he did, I think I would have given up, but not him!”

I know Puerto Galera very well. It’s where I learned to dive 16 years and 850+ dives ago, and you can see some pretty cool stuff there.

Over in Indonesia the NAD-Lembeh resort in Sulawesi NAD Lembeh Resort is also in the process of renovating some rooms. That’s run by my old Tahiti Aggressor boat colleague Simon and his wife Zee. And if you like taking photos Simon can show you some fantastic things underwater.

So no excuses people, get out there and take the plunge. You won’t regret it 🙂

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