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Set Free Undersea

Disabled divers are exploring a brave new world without wheelchairs

As she floated 40 feet below the ocean's surface, amid the kelp beds oil California's Channel Islands, Julie Perez came upon a school of bright garibaldi fish weaving like a ribbon through the swaying green forest. Perez hung motionless as the fish enveloped her, hundreds of orange Hashes moving as one.

Finally the fish turned and swam away, and Julie Perez, scuba diver, mother, travel agent, horseback rider—and quadriplegic—left the freedom that the sea affords her for the reality of life in a wheelchair. Perez, 35, who suffers from a neurological disorder, has only limited use of her arms and legs. Scuba diving changed her life, as it has changed the lives of thousands of disabled people around the world.

"Diving feels like flying," says Perez, who as a child enjoyed watching Sea Hunt and Flipper on television. "I like to explore and be active, but my wheelchair limits me. Once I'm underwater and weightless, I can go wherever I want."

Michelle Galler, a self-described "former beach bunny," thought she would have to abandon the ocean forever when she was seriously injured in a skiing accident. Now confined to an electric wheelchair, Galler, who is in her 30's, like Perez found her way back to an active life through diving. "Being hurt that badly was like having to grow up again," she says. "Diving played a big part in bringing my life back together. Diving is my freedom."

Giving freedom to the disabled is what led dive instructor Jim Gatacre, 52, to begin teaching scuba to those who would otherwise not be able to venture into the water. After severely injuring his arm and losing the use of it partially 22 years ago, he began teaching a course at UC Irvine that became the basis of a diver-certification program for the handicapped. And in 1981 he formed the Handicapped Scuba Association, which now has more than a thousand members nationwide. In addition, roughly 800 dive instructors in 26 countries have taken a training course devised by Gatacre that certifies them to instruct disabled divers.

"They call sports for the disabled 'adaptive' sports," says Gatacre, who is still the HSA's president. "But scuba diving is adaptive for everyone, able or disabled. Everyone has to adapt to a new environment underwater. That levels the playing field."

In fact, the participation of able-bodied divers is essential to the HSA's certification course. A safe dive, regardless of a diver's physical ability, relies on the buddy system. The HSA certifies disabled recreational divers at three different levels, based on the divers' ability to function as buddies to other divers. Level A divers, for example, can rescue other divers and assist in underwater emergencies. Many paraplegics, with full use of their upper bodies, qualify at this level. Level B divers can take care of themselves but are unable to assist their buddies. Each Level B diver must dive with two other divers, who look out for each other as well as the disabled diver. And Level C divers, usually quadriplegics, need help with their equipment and in moving around underwater. They too must each dive with two buddies.

HSA divers learn the same scuba skills that able-bodied divers do, but they must make some adjustments. Underwater, they learn how to make the most of whatever limited motion they have. For those with some use of their arms, underwater strokes become longer, with more gliding in between. Also, because all divers rely on pantomime to communicate with their buddies, divers without use of their hands learn to use nods or blinks or eye rolls, while those with some hand movement adapt standard dive signals.

Methods of entry into the water vary for disabled divers: Many plunge in with a forward rather than a backward roll; some use a ramp, others are carried or boost themselves over the gunwale.

Most disabled divers need little special equipment. Tanks, vests, regulators and masks are usually standard issue. And much of the gear that disabled divers have adapted for themselves was developed for able-bodied divers in manufacturers' endless quest for easy-to-use gear. Webbed gloves, for example, allow hands to act as fins; nose-purge masks—easier to clear without being removed—save a diver from having to ask a buddy to help with this tricky underwater maneuver.

Disabled divers say the most important adaptation is in their minds. Attempting to dive, they assert, has opened a world of possibilities to them. Scuba is now a part of several rehabilitation hospital therapeutic programs for spinal-cord injuries. "Scuba is such a main-streaming sport," says Denise Dowd, an occupational therapist at The Rehabilitation Institute of Santa Barbara in California and an HSA instructor. "Disabled divers are able to do and see things that they didn't think were possible for them. It's an enormous boost to self-esteem."

The HSA has never had a report of a fatality among its trained divers. "I find that my disabled students are more determined, more committed," says Dowd.

According to Jean-Michel Cousteau, the noted environmentalist, film producer and son of Jacques Cousteau, disabled divers are also "excellent observers, who don't rush over an area. They don't hunt and they don't collect and they don't spear. They come back and tell you about things you might have seen but you swam right by."

Two years ago Jean-Michel made a film, To Fly in Freedom, with six disabled divers, including Perez and Galler, diving off Fiji. "To people who have given up or people who are thinking, Poor me, these divers are an inspiration," says Cousteau. "If we can eliminate that negative attitude, we will have accomplished something."

Trying to eliminate such doubts took Gatacre and others many years. "When we first did classes back in the '70s, doctors told us it was impossible," Gatacre says. "Dive-shop owners would back away from us when we came in. We had to find rebels to take us out on boats."

Brian Foley, a former commercial diver and now a director at the Hyperbaric Medicine Center at Presbyterian/ St. Luke's Medical Center in Denver, was an early skeptic. "I thought that diving for the handicapped was a very bad idea," he says. "You have to understand that for years divers were trained that only their physical skills would get them out of danger, by swimming. But the sport and the equipment and the training have evolved so far that the physical element of the sport can be very much lessened." As evidence of Foley's change of heart, the standard form he cowrote for a predive-certification physical exam was revised to include disabled divers.

Of course, once certified and properly equipped, disabled divers need a place to dive. The HSA helps them by finding handicapped-accessible dive resorts around the world. Galler, who is the HSA's vice president, and Perez, the group's travel and membership coordinator, have visited resorts in Japan, Australia, the South Pacific and the Caribbean, recommending changes to improve accessibility. It has been a slow process. "For a while there, I think we were doing something," she says. "We'd make some suggestions and people would make changes and we'd promote the resort to our divers. But in the past two years, people have started fearing what we're doing."

Ironically, she blames the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. "People don't like government telling them what to do," Galler says. "They feel like they have to do something, instead of wanting to do something."

The HSA is working worldwide to weaken resistance on the part of dive operators and resort owners. "We have satellite groups in Italy, Brazil, Canada and England," says Gatacre. "And while many places are behind the U.S. in attitudes toward the handicapped, we're working to change that."

Interestingly, Jacques Cousteau, the first name in underwater exploration, might never have begun diving or co-developed the first Aqua-Lung if not for his own physical challenge. While he was training to become a pilot in France in the 1930s, both arms were mangled in a car accident. The right arm was paralyzed for six months, and gangrene almost caused the amputation of the left. "Only after months of painful work was he able to recover use of that arm," says Jean-Michel Cousteau. As Jacques's air career ended, he looked to the sea to meet his need for adventure. It was there, he says in his son's film, that he found what he had wanted to find in the air as a pilot and what Perez, Galler and others have found as well.

"Underwater," says the elder Cousteau, "I could fly again."



Perez, a Level C diver, examines a sea fan off Fiji. She has traveled the world taking in such sights.



The HSA favors resorts like Bonaire's Flamingo Beach; Adolf Flores was an early member.



[See caption above.]

James Buckley Jr. is a sports columnist for the Santa Barbara Independent in California.