Paraplegic Scuba Diving: Free Wheeling to Success


Sue Austin Image Courtesy of Sue Austin

"We’ve created something new and exciting and it’s really getting people talking."
- Sue Austin

The year of 2012 has brought us the Diamond Jubilee, the Olympics, Paralympics and the first scuba diving wheelchair. At her arts event Creating the Spectacle featuring in the Cultural Olympiad, Sue Austin successfully performs ballet underwater from the comfort of her modified wheelchair, introducing fresh possibilities for paraplegic scuba diving enthusiasts.

Austin is an artist who has been bound to a wheelchair since 1996 when she was diagnosed with ME, commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In 2005, she underwent scuba diving training in Egypt that won her heart, inspiring her glorious creation - the modified scuba diving wheelchair. Not allowing her condition to hinder her talent, Austin actively engages and encourages disabled artists in realising their dreams through their art - like she did.

Freewheeling, the initiative behind the wheelchair’s success, aims to promote arts and culture with disabled artists. The group is lead by disabled people and encourages academic research, mutual learning within disabled and abled artists and stimulates art-related activity to heighten the status among disabled artists.

Austin admits in an interview with the BBC that engineers were not convinced of the idea. With her determination shining through, Austin achieved a dream that has been in the pipeline since 2008. Her innovation and performance received a positive reception, leaving her audience in awe.

Sue Austin freewheeling Image courtesy of Freewheeling

Speaking about her underwater ballet performance, Austin describes it as being "much more acrobatic than I anticipated". The wheelchair has two foot-controlled drive propulsions, two plastic wing-like objects on either side of the legs, fins and a breathing apparatus attached. The chair was funded by the National Lottery and Austin wants the next model made from titanium to prevent the rust that has started on the current one.

Austin has been asked to hire out her modified wheelchair by professional divers and the talk of a patent is on the cards. This new dynamic defines a niche in the scope of scuba diving that will have to be accommodated by scuba diving clubs’ regulations and possibly holiday insurance.

The performances in Creating the Spectacle are being screened at the Unlimited Festival at the Royal Festival Hall in London from August 30th until September 9th 2012.

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