Daniel J Vance

The Chiefland (Fla.) Citizen newspaper brought my attention to a nonprofit organization in Pensacola helping people with disabilities experience scuba diving. I tracked down the national group, Diveheart, which trained the people in Pensacola. What I learned surprised me.

“My daughter has been blind from birth,” said 53-year-old Jim Elliott of Downers Grove, Illinois, who founded Diveheart in 2001. “We thought something was wrong because Erin (now 30) wasn’t tracking us with her eyes.”

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Even so, the local school would mainstream her. “Then when she was about eight, the kids on the playground began teasing her because her eyes never tracked (motion),” he continued. “She could read a two-inch-high letter right in front of her face. She could read, she said, and wondered why they were teasing. So she decided she wasn’t blind, threw her (white) cane down and wouldn’t read Braille.”

What changed her outlook was her father getting her involved in skiing. Afterward, she was able to show her peers pictures of her skiing. It built her self-confidence and independence. Also, Elliott’s co-workers were inspired seeing pictures of a blind girl skiing.

Then Elliott reacquainted himself with scuba diving, which he’d learned in college. Because of zero gravity, scuba would be a perfect activity for people with disabilities, he thought. Eventually, in 1996, he left a six-figure income to become a scuba instructor for people with disabilities. Five years later, he founded Diveheart.

Elliott has set up adaptive scuba programs in more than 50 cities and six countries, and spun off 8 nonprofits, including one in Pensacola. The scuba diving is done with specially trained instructors using standard equipment in indoor swimming pools. The effect on people with disabilities (including quadriplegics) has been similar to that of when his daughter skied. It builds self-confidence and independence.

Lately, Elliott has become especially excited about scuba’s therapeutic properties. At 33 feet down, he said, ambient pressure doubles. At 20 feet, the person breathes 100 percent oxygen. It’s all done in zero gravity. In essence, he said, scuba diving at these depths is similar to hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Elliott now has anecdotal evidence of children with autism, cerebral palsy, and people with traumatic brain injuries, for example, markedly improving after working with physical therapists at these depths.

Currently, he is seeking medical researchers to study what is happening. “It’s going to change the world,” he said.

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