About 15 percent of the world’s population has some form of physical disability, which can range from those that have been present since since birth to those caused by injuries or illnesses. Although disabilities can equate to limitations on physical pursuits, they don’t have to mean that scuba diving is out of the question. Most dive organizations offer instructor training to teach people with disabilities to dive, either as part of their regular instructor training or as a specialty course.
Scuba diving can be a fantastic experience for many disabled people, as the weightless environment often allows the diver to experience freedom from whatever restraints they face on land. Someone confined to a wheelchair can experience almost extreme liberation while hovering weightless in mid-water.
One of the best things about scuba diving for people with disabilities is that water, in my experience, is the ultimate equalizer. Being suspended weightlessly in water is so unlike anything we can do on land — which is often the draw of the sport — that skills we either have or lack tend to not matter that much. For the dive student with a physical disability, this is even more true. The key skills in scuba, such as buoyancy control, can be mastered with a whole range of disabilities. I’ve seen world-class athletes struggle underwater as much or more than the person next to them, even if that person was never particularly athletic. I’ve seen national team swimmers who must unlearn everything they know about being in the water before mastering scuba diving.
Scuba diving has also been used successfully as therapy for people with disabilities. Physical therapists have long known that water therapy is beneficial, but scuba diving seems to have its own benefits too. There are lots of programs that teach scuba diving to wounded war veterans, and the therapeutic results there are by now well-documented.
Depending on the severity and nature of a disability, various diving options are open to a student. Some will be able to take full scuba-diving certifications; others may need to do their dives with certified instructors to ensure that they can dive safely. A number of dive operators around the world offer this service, and have instructors who are certified to dive with disabled divers.
Local dive shops and dive organizations, as well as organizations that offer services and information to people living with a physical disability, will all be able to supply information on the opportunities to learn how to dive, and on places around the world to go diving.
If you are a dive instructor and are interested in teaching disability diving, contact your certifying organization or local dive shop to learn more.