Those in the know say the magic of diving when you are living with disability is that it’s a journey that continues long after you resurface.
Midway through a gap year and about to complete his open water scuba diving
certification on the Great Barrier Reef, Briton Mark Slingo was living the dream. But in 2005, just four years after his first dive and only weeks after qualifying as a divemaster and instructor, an accident turned the 22-year-old’s life upside down.
A fall from a third floor balcony caused him such severe spinal injuries that he was left living with nine-tenths paraplegia. But this is not a story of lost opportunity. Just six weeks after his discharge from a spinal injuries unit in his native UK, Slingo found himself back where he started, at his former dive centre in Thailand, teaching others the joy of scuba.
After enduring such physical and emotional trauma in the days after his accident, Slingo says his first post-accident dive was critical to helping transform his life. “It was awesome to know I could still continue doing what I loved with very few adaptions.” Past experience had taught him that diving would challenge his endurance and improve his cardiovascular strength. But he was also aware that many amputees, paraplegics and quadriplegics or those struggling with their mental health had found adaptive diving helped improve their self-esteem and self-belief.
Just three years after his accident, Slingo became the first and only wheelchair user to become a PADI Course Director and in 2013, he was responsible for teaching the first ever Disabled Diving Instructor course in Australia. Today, Slingo is the Director of Training and Marketing for Disabled Divers International and he also runs his own PADI 5 Star IDC instructor training dive centre in Diani, Kenya.
Helping to supercharge interest in this sport is the fact that both the US and UK military have adopted it as a part of their rehabilitation program with disabled veterans and people who’ve been in combat. Slingo says the unique nature of adaptive scuba diving is that it offers those living with disability the chance to throw off the constraints they have on land and dive into an environment where they are the same as able-bodied divers.
When instructing others to teach the finer points of adaptive diving, Slingo typically includes an introduction to different conditions including cerebral palsy, spinal injury and Down syndrome. He likes to keep this aspect as brief as possible. “Everyone is different as to what they can and can’t do so it’s important to treat each disabled learner diver as an individual,” he says.
For people who are wheelchair bound, diving is exhilarating, he says. “There’s nothing like it. We call ourselves life-changers because you see the change in people who think they can’t do it and when they do it, they feel this huge sense of achievement.”
While a medical clearance is usually required, Slingo’s advice to anyone contemplating learning to dive while living with disability is simply to “just do it”. “If you can breathe and your circulation is okay, then there is no reason why you can’t experience the freedom provided by being in the water and of course, there is another world down there to see. You won’t regret it.”