Scuba diving is a sport recognized worldwide for its freeing environment, which is especially empowering for individuals with disabilities: adaptive divers. Encapsulated within calming blue waters where gravity has a lesser hold, adaptive divers enjoy not only an enhanced sense of freedom but a strong camaraderie with their fellow divers. In recent decades, adaptive diving programs have become mainstays for certification organizations and local dive institutions. One dive center, A-1 Scuba and Travel Center of Littleton, Colorado, has successfully branched out into many different adaptive diving programs throughout the years.
A-1 Scuba applies a multi-faceted approach to sharing the wonders of the underwater world with adaptive scuba divers, with different programs tailored for individuals with varying needs. Friends and loved ones of adaptive scuba divers can also join in these empowering sessions and learn the best techniques to become an adaptive buddy diver.
Article by John Tapley; photos by Brett Seymour, photographer for U.S. NPS
For decades, A-1 Scuba has solidified a close relationship with Craig Hospital: a world-renowned institution located in nearby Englewood, which specializes in rehabilitating patients who have spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries. Company owner Scott Taylor, who worked at the hospital as a physical therapist, combined his love of scuba diving with his passion for strengthening others.
“My father-in-law, who founded A-1 60 years ago, supported it so we took patients in. I quickly discovered how freeing the water can be, and that quickly inspired me to become a scuba instructor. Craig had a very small therapeutic pool and I would take equipment over and get select patients in the water – we just did circles in the water because of the size. We decided to bring people to our pool at the store and that helped launch the program.
“We’re now a point where we’ve evolved to several milestones. We have a monthly Try Scuba experience for people with disabilities: predominately patients, out-patients, and graduates who have left. We’re lucky because our pool is adaptively built: we have an elevator to get to the lower section of the building and the pool; an ADA bathroom and locker-room; and most importantly, an electric ceiling lift, donated by Craig, to lift people out of the water.”
The Try Scuba program is made possible through the work and dedication of volunteers who share a common devotion to the water and its therapeutic effects.
“We have a lot of good people who volunteer their time each month to come over here and help us,” says Taylor. “All of them have been through a training program we offer at the store through the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA).”
Through following HSA guidelines and standards, A-1 has formed two course programs aimed at dive buddies and instructors: respectively, the HSA/A-1 Scuba Dive Buddy Course and the HSA/A-1 Scuba Instructor Qualification Course. Both programs take three-and-a-half days to complete and instill students with the right skills to safely and professionally assist and train adaptive divers. During the courses, participants learn about varying diseases and disabilities, and the best way to meet specific challenges. Developing empathy for adaptive divers is a keystone feature in these courses: for example, students will sit in wheelchairs during class, move throughout the facility, and learn how to assemble and disassemble adaptive devices. Following these sessions, participants dive at the Denver Downtown Aquarium to showcase their skills and train in saltwater environments.
“For people getting into it, it’s typically someone who is able-bodied: a friend, a spouse or someone who knows an individual with a disability… they want to entice them to dive or be a buddy,” says Taylor. “Diving professionals from around the country will attend to become a dive buddy or instructor: who now has the knowledge, wherewithal, and credentials to teach and certify under HSA standards.”
Beyond these programs, A-1 Scuba & Travel Aquatics Center is also an affiliate member of the WAVES (Wounded American Veterans Experience Scuba) Project: a 501 3(c) non-profit organization, which provides diving opportunities for US veterans with service-related disabilities. Through this fellowship, the Coloradan dive center offers veterans the freedom and rehabilitation of scuba diving at no cost. The A-1/WAVES program is divided into two phases: the first, a Discover Scuba experience at the center’s onsite pool; the second, an Open Water Diver Course via PADI.
Rounding out the adaptive diving experience, A-1 Scuba also embarks on yearly adaptive scuba trips to some of the most coveted destinations in the world such as Cozumel, Mexico and Cayman Brac. A-1 has also worked with the National Parks Service’s Submerged Resources Center and Pacific Historic Parks on a project at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor: a pilot project wherein adaptive veteran divers assist NPS underwater archaeologists and photographers in managing the iconic monument by cleaning and treating oil seepage: a mission-based program tailored for former servicemen and women.
“One of the goals I’ve had – and I probably speak for many – in diving is independence. That was drilled into me as a physical therapist: don’t take no for an answer; let’s find a way to adapt. That’s the beauty of diving: you virtually eliminate gravity and go from dependency on a wheelchair or prosthetic device to independency. They can do something project-related and feel the fulfillment, success, and teamwork; and for veterans, I think it’s more impactful.”
For more details on A-1 Scuba & Travel Aquatics Center and its programs for adaptive divers, visit www.a1scuba.com. The website also contains a bevy of resources for disabled people looking into diving.