Is there anything more freeing than scuba diving? Submerged in an unearthly world, you find all the rules have changed. Nothing is as it was. Walking is out, floating is in. You drift serenely, enveloped by silence. Alien creatures sashay past. Dry land is a mere memory.
For the average person, breaking free from the rules of our world is a thrill; for the physically disabled, it’s almost inconceivably liberating. Fraser Bathgate, founder of Disabled Divers International (DDI), explains to Time Out: ‘It gives them a freedom they don’t have on dry land. They get full 360° movement, which, if you are in a wheelchair, is completely liberating. And it’s a unique opportunity to see what a very small amount of people get to see.’
DDI trains diving instructors around the world to teach disabled students to scuba dive. Thanks to DDI, 11 instructors at The Pavilion Dive Centre at Jumeirah Beach Hotel recently qualified to teach disabled students, which means the region’s disabled community will be offered the opportunity to scuba dive here for the very first time.
Recently qualified Ernst Vanderpoll, an instructor at Pavilion Dive Centre, says that he first became interested in helping the disabled community after working with the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund in Dubai. ‘I met kids who had lost their limbs from injuries obtained in Gaza, who had come to Dubai to be fitted with prosthetics or get corrective surgery,’ he says. ‘These children should be able to run and jump like any other children their age, but had lost the ability due to the injuries they suffered.’ He describes the feeling of teaching these children to dive. ‘Very few things I have encountered in life can compare to sharing an amputee’s first diving experience. Seeing them realise that they are able to move freely underwater, without the help of crutches or a wheelchair, is unforgettable.’
Khalil Aljedaili is one such amputee. Vanderpoll tells us the 15-year-old lost both legs when his grandmother’s house was shelled in January last year. The instructor says Khalil was an inspiration to him. ‘Seeing Khalil become the first double amputee from Palestine to receive the PADI scuba certification made me realise that the word “disabled” did not really apply to him – he was able.’
There’s a raft of specialist equipment that helps disabled people to dive, ranging from simple innovations such as webbed gloves to new specially designed thrusters that push the diver through the water. ‘We have something very James Bond called the Pegasus Thruster, which attaches to your tank,’ explains Bathgate. ‘We’ve been working with designers for more than seven years to produce something to make diving even more accessible. You just use your chin to operate a switch that controls it. We’ve had quadriplegics, cerebral palsy sufferers and traumatic brain injury patients all use it.’
However, Bathgate points out that one of the best aspects about diving for the disabled is that it’s a sport ‘where you can be on a par with your peers’. Underwater, everyone’s abilities are equal, and often disabled divers don’t need any special equipment at all. ‘The majority of sports require a special wheelchair or adapted equipment for the disabled,’ he says. ‘With diving, you can just pick up a mask, snorkel and fins like everyone else.’
The Pavilion Dive Centre plans to run a quarterly diving course for Dubai’s disabled community free of charge, and is even considering introducing a ‘Sponsor a Disabled Diver’ initiative, involving the local community in helping Dubai’s disabled divers take a full programme of lessons. It’s undoubtedly worth getting involved. As Vanderpoll asserts: ‘Scuba diving makes these people feel whole again.’
Call The Pavilion Dive Centre on 04 406 8828 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Disabled Divers International, see www.ddivers.org
The Pavilion Dive Centre is looking for divers in Dubai to volunteer their time for the disabled diving programme. You can learn to become a surface assistant or a diving assistant. Interested? Just give Pavilion a call.