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.