Have you ever imagined how your life would change if you went through a car accident, serious health complication or another disaster that could turn everything you know upside down? If you lost an ability that you consider normal and take for granted? What if you lost the ability to walk, see, hear, or move your arms? Which of the things I enjoy doing would I be able to continue to do?
Being a diver, I struggle to imagine how difficult it would be to learn to dive again as a disabled person. I thought about how I would be forced to modify gear, the way I move and buoyancy. But as I continued to learn, I found many issues that I had never considered. I got a first-hand opportunity to enlighten myself when we organized a demo event for the rebreather with the wheelchair sports club SKV Prague.
I was worried about how this event would go. Despite never having dove with anyone that had disabilities, I have had some experience working with them and always admired their ability to adapt. Thus, I tried to carefully prepare and think of anything that may be an issue. Fortunately, I was not alone. We had the perfect team from Divesoft to help me with the dive equipment and set up, as well as other instructor's experience of working with divers with disabilities. Thanks to this team, I learned how to work with the disabled in the water.
It should also be noted that the members of SKV Prague are not beginners. Most of them have a complete diving training. They dive regularly with their instructors to flooded quarries and the annual trip to the sea in Elba, Egypt, or Thailand. Scuba diving is a great opportunity for them to enjoy the freedom of weightlessness and moving underwater.
Each of the participants had slightly different needs. Some were paralyzed in the lower half of their bodies, and others were even quadriplegics. This means that their arms are partially or completely immobile. Some were able to get into the pool with minimal assistance, others were unable to do so without the help of others. All of them were already prepared in wetsuits, which they said they can do very well and as quickly as healthy divers.
We were then able to get them into the water and get them comfortably into the rebreather harness after the initial training. This was followed by a test breathing from the apparatus. As soon as the diver signaled that he was ready, we flipped him face down on the surface, have them breathe for a few seconds and flipped him back face up. This was so that we and the diver could see if everything was functioning properly and the diver was ready to dive.
Communication is very interesting. For divers in wheelchairs it is no different since they have their hands to demonstrate clear hand signals, but quadriplegics are quite limited or completely unable to use hand signals. For instructors, this is a big deal because the only way to react or signal a problem is for the diver to move his/her head or even just the eyes.
Therefore, it requires much more concentration on the client than in a normal training or test dive. We absolutely cannot take our eyes off the client for even a second, plus we need help to maintain the ideal breathing position. The uncontrollable legs combined with a counterlung and front body movements cause a strong heads-up roll. Thus in the beginning we had to help the client completely until they got used to the new device and learned how to find a good position on their own.
For quadriplegics, constant physical contact was necessary at all times, but some divers with healthy arms were able to swim on their own after a while. Even behind their mask they could not hide their expressions! They then commented on their first experiences with the rebreather, amazed at the silence and ease of breathing. Most of them found it almost strange, but this feeling is quite familiar to anyone who has tried it for the first time with Liberty. You could see it all over their faces that they loved it, but they didn't have the same confidence as with the open circuit they've long gotten used to. They were all extremely grateful for the opportunity to try such a machine and some regretted not being able to take it home or on their next trip to the seaside. Who knows, maybe one day it could happen!
It is such an inspiration to work with people who are able to cope with their hardship and manage an extraordinary life despite such unimaginably difficult hurdles to face. It is amazing despite having the basic ability to provide for themselves they do not give up their daily routines, current work, and hobbies. Even finding new ones! However, the work that instructors who introduce diving to the handicap do such an incredible job. I was able to see first-hand this important work to help them fulfil their dreams to be free in a weightless world.