HSA – Scuba

Circa 1995

The scariest moment in the world is when the water goes over your mask. Forget about learning how to navigate in a wheel chair. Never mind learning how to drive a car in city traffic. These are nothing compared to the prospect of breathing underwater..

The first scientific fact most of us learn as kids is that the world is roughly three-quarters water. What we don’t learn then-sometimes never is that the ocean doesn’t care much about the people who inhabit the remaining 25% of the globe. Unlike humanity, the Pacific could not care less whether or not the people who swim in its currents are black or white or yellow or red. The Atlantic doesn’t discriminate against men or women. The Gulf of Mexico isn’t concerned with whether or not you can walk or talk or see or hear. None of that matters. The deep will take you on, no matter what.

For a long time, though, the ocean was considered the realm of able-bodied seamen. All that changed in 1981, when Jim Gatacre founded the Handicapped Scuba Association.

The HSA had its informal beginnings in 1972 when Gatacre suffered severe injury to his arm, losing partial use of it for life.

Determined not to let that stop him from doing anything he wanted, Jim continued his active lifestyle. At the University of California, Irvine, Jim began teaching a course that became the foundation of a diver certification program for the disabled. Gatacre realizes the need for a glob al certification agency to monitor SCUBA diving for the disabled. Thus HSA was formed.

The qualifications to become a certified open water diver do not vary much between the dozen or so different certification agencies around the world. There are certain basic skills needed to insure safety in the water. both your own and that of your dive buddy. There are rigorous tests performed in and out of the water.

In the classroom portion of your training, you take written tests; you’re treated to discussions on air pressure and density; you hear horror stories about brain embolisms and “The Bends,” a disease of mythic stature among divers…

Once in the water, you begin to experience why you are learning all of these skills. The moment when you slide under the water for the first time, sucking in compressed air through a regulator, you have to keep reminding yourself that, thanks to a technology only a few years older than your father, you really are able to breathe when the waves are breaking above you.

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All of the basic skills tests dis cussed in class are performed under the watchful eye of your instructor in a confined area of water (generally a pool at least 12 feet deep) then repeated once you get out into the ocean or a large lake. The purpose of all this repetition is to expose the diver to the multitude of problems which may (and, as they tell you in class, probably will) happen sometime in your diving career. At a depth of twelve feet, just the point where your ears start to feel the pressure, you are asked to take off your mask, take out your regulator, even remove your weight belt. Sitting on the ocean floor, you understand how important air is not just to breathe, but to keep you buoyant, ensuring you won’t sink, feet first, into the great abyss below.

Once you pass, you get your card and you’re a certified diver. You are now ready to go and learn about the world of water.

The above is standard. No matter who are, you must complete these rituals to become certified. There are divers, however, who need a little more help. The HSA was created to cater to them.

Yes, the ocean is the great equalizer. It’s the closest thing to anti-gravity the planet can offer. Water has a tremendous amount of power, it can counteract the inability to move about freely, so there is no place in the ocean an able-bodied diver can go where a disabled diver cannot follow. The difference is perspective.

Okay, it’s not really that simple. There are other differences. According to the HSA, there are three classifications for a disabled diver. As opposed to PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors, the largest diver certifying agency in the world), which sets a standard and just changes the level the more dives you go on with an instructor, HSA determines your status by how much help you need in the water. All certified divers are required by consent (there is no law) to dive with one other diver (a buddy). This is consistent with HSA Level A divers. Level B divers require two buddies. The last HSA rating. Level C, requires two divers to accompany the HSA diver and one of the buddies must be trained as a Rescue Diver (the third level of PADI training where a lot of time is spent learning first aid for dive related injuries as well as how to effectively get an injured person out of the water).

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All that aside. HSA divers are still swimming side by side with everyone else. So what’s the difference?

Safety, Point of view. Attention to detail.

The ocean can kill you, no question about it. But when your day-to day life is filled with threats from things as innocent as your own body, the ocean becomes less imposing Underwater, things move differently. Your body doesn’t react the way it should. Movements have to be precise. If you spend time in physical therapy on a daily basis, this is nothing new. The ocean becomes a familiar friend. Being disabled on land is no handicap underwater, it’s just another challenge which one meets.

Mark Phillips has been diving for two years. When asked what diving is like he replied, “The ocean is very quiet-sort of it’s a different kind of noise…the noise of life, not civilization. Once the sound of your regulator fades into the background, everything takes on a surreal quality. It’s three dimensional. On land we are primarily aware of what is in front of us, behind us, to the right of us and to the left of us. Under the water you become much more aware of what is on top of you and underneath you. Gravity is absent and you are basically floating above the landscape.”

Julie Perez, an adaptive diver says, “Diving is like flying or walking on the moon.” Julie has been diving with HSA for over ten years. She has enjoyed the diving in places all over the world (Fiji, Venezuela, Cayman Islands, Florida Keys, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, New Guinea) and is planning to travel to the Red Sea with the HSA this May.

by Tamara Genest and Jaq Greenspon

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