Handicapped Divers Take the Plunge in Scuba Club

On one of those almost-perfect California winter afternoons, when the slight bite in the air is offset by sun, fluffy white clouds and a turquoise sky, six scuba aficionados met at Divers Cove in Laguna Beach.

Before long, four had changed into wet suits and were beginning the steep journey down to the beach. As they progressed, members of the group drew a few stares from other Saturday afternoon beachgoers, for most of the divers wheeled rather than walked down the ramp. Then they used their powerful arms to shift themselves down the steps while a few able-bodied companions carried wheelchairs and heavy scuba gear to sea level. Eventually, two able-bodied and two handicapped divers made their way into the waves breaking on the beach.

It was another afternoon outing of the Handicapped Scuba Assn. (HSA), a nonprofit organization whose members are breaking through some of the stereotypes associated with the disabled. Founded by San Clemente resident Jim Gatacre in mid-1981 and incorporated in January, 1983, the association has trained about 40 individuals--handicapped and able-bodied--in the rules of safe diving. In doing so, the association encountered and overcame much diving industry resistance to the idea that handicapped people can be competent divers. HSA has also produced educational literature, devised a diver certification process for different levels of handicaps and produced a film, "Freedom in Depth," which premiered recently in Las Vegas.

Known Worldwide

Today the HSA is known by divers around the world, but its beginnings were more humble. In 1975 a UC Irvine staff member got Gatacre involved in teaching scuba to the handicapped, and a second class was offered through the university in 1977. Then there was a four-year break before Gatacre initiated his own scuba teaching program. Today the San Clemente resident is HSA's sole diving instructor as well as its chief promoter and record keeper, although some assistance is provided by his wife, Patricia Gatacre, past students and interested community members.

A full-time salesman for a small company's roofing product, Gatacre says he gives HSA about 30 hours of his time each week, working without a salary. He has a slight handicap, the result of a 1972 accident that temporarily paralyzed his right arm and made him feel "very alienated in terms of physical things." He remembers worrying about how people would respond to him and whether he'd be able to do things he had previously enjoyed, he said. Eventually he recovered most of the use of his arm, but by then he was hooked on the idea of helping more severely handicapped people do things they hadn't dreamed possible. And over the years since then, Gatacre has taught scuba diving to paraplegics, quadriplegics, amputees, blind people and people with cerebral palsy.

"I like to teach. I'm a physical person, and I've got a degree in biology. This combines everything. I particularly like seeing people accomplish things that other people don't think they can accomplish--things they themselves don't think they can accomplish," Gatacre said. "The ocean doesn't care if you're handicapped or not. Diving is more than just a physical challenge, it's a mental challenge."

Equal Underwater

Handicapped divers are sometimes better at scuba than able-bodied divers, he added. "You're overcoming biological responses. For instance, it's not natural to breathe underwater. So you have to be trained to overcome those feelings." Even the strongest diver can't move very fast through deep water while wearing an average of 70 pounds of scuba gear, added the HSA founder. So the ability to propel oneself forward rapidly is not necessary. Training in how to take care of oneself and one's "dive buddy" is necessary, and so is knowing how "to keep yourself floating in the water, so you can get to the surface. That's the main thing, being able to get to the surface" in an emergency, said Gatacre.

Norm Anderson, one of Gatacre's first students, "is one of the best divers I've ever seen, and he's a paraplegic," Gatacre said. When Anderson was 10, a bout of polio deprived him of his ability to walk, but it didn't deprive him of a yen for adventure. He's played wheelchair basketball for 26 years and has been diving for three years. Scuba, said Anderson, 43, "is the most adventurous sport I've ever done.

"This is a sport where you're not limited to your wheelchair, and you're not bent in half like in all the wheelchair sports," said Anderson, who came along on the recent Divers Cove outing but didn't go into the water because of a slight cold. "This shows handicapped people what they can do, one on one, with able-bodied people." Scuba has become his favorite sport, added the Orange resident, because "down there you can go wherever you want to go."

'No Dividing Lines'

"This is one sport, one organization, where there are no dividing lines" between those in wheelchairs and those who walk, said Jennifer Smith. Four and a half years ago, Smith--a nurse who was an avid skier, long-distance runner and aerobics teacher--was training for the Honolulu marathon when a stranger shot her in the back four times. Since then the Santa Monica resident, who is now a paraplegic, has become the second-fastest woman athlete in the world in wheelchair marathon racing, and she's employed as a spokeswoman by Everest and Jennings, a large medical supply company.

Before her accident, she had gone scuba diving at least 500 times, the 29-year-old said, and diving was the first sport she attempted when she left the hospital. "When I was first hurt, I thought about all of the things I was going to lose, all of the things I was not going to be able to do. The one thing I didn't have to think about twice was scuba diving," she said. "When you have a disability, gravity is the enemy, and in the water, gravity is not a problem." But relearning how to dive through Gatacre's program wasn't as easy as she'd expected. "I was very weak, and I was not used to my new body. I spent so much energy fighting my body, I wasn't sure I could dive," she said. She found herself "floundering in a way I never expected. I was flopping over like a dead fish, and we just kept at it until we'd worked out all the problems that someone with a spinal injury has," Smith said.

Eventually, "I just told myself that I had a new body, and I'd better stop fighting it. Once I gave up what I used to be, I felt very comfortable again" in the water, said Smith. "I've never seen anybody who's done the job that Jim's done. He's actually putting his students through a course and a half."

Continues Activities

Ken Force, 28, took Gatacre's training program in 1983 and, like many former students, continues to participate in HSA-sponsored dives and other activities. He is vice president of the association, a position he said means selling videotapes of the new film, putting out "Gettin' Down Scuba News," the organization's local newsletter, and "being a 'gofer' for Jim if he gets too burdened. I guess I'm basically responsible for anything Jim can't handle or doesn't feel like handling," said the Garden Grove resident. "Plus I keep the rest of the jokers in line."

Force, a former Army corporal, suffered a spinal cord injury in 1975 from an accidental gunshot. Now he's a self-employed accountant. Scuba "is one sport that's enabled me to maintain a high level of achievement, of feeling good about myself," he said. "I took up bowling, golf and wheelchair basketball and a couple of other activities, but nothing seemed to satisfy my quest. . . . I was more competitive than that. I like to compete with others, and at the same time I like to compete with a natural environment. I think this is what I was looking for all along. I can don the equipment and successfully complete a dive in the same way an able-bodied person can."

Learning scuba diving "is challenging; I don't want to understate the challenge for a handicapped person," Gatacre said. Yet "it's unique, it's something you're doing as an equal. All of the barriers between (handicapped and able-bodied) people disappear."

'Dive Buddies'

Gatacre's basic training classes, one or more of which are offered each year, can accommodate up to 10 diving students. Ideally, but not always, those classes include an even balance between handicapped and able-bodied students. In the classes, Gatacre often pairs handicapped students with non-handicapped students as "dive buddies," more for the philosophical goal of integration than for safety purposes. (A diving partner, he noted, is a standard safety precaution for the able-bodied as well as the handicapped.) Once they've completed the course, many handicapped divers can scuba as safely with disabled partners as with able-bodied ones.

Gatacre's classes run six to eight weeks, cost $160 and include about 60 hours of class lectures, workouts at a pool and visits to the beach. "There's a lot to master in scuba," Gatacre said. "There's a lot you learn in a short period of time. Combine that with a disability and a lot of instructors wouldn't touch it. There are some nice people who teach paraplegics who have tended to leave things out and make the course less difficult.

"I spend a lot of time teaching people, to get the basics down. Then I have to keep them involved in diving, keep them around, show them what they need to continue to work on. This is more a European-style organization in that we don't have a class and then say goodby," said Gatacre. He said he stays in touch with as many past students as possible and invites them to participate in dives, usually on chartered boats to Catalina, at least once a month.

Personality Fits Task

According to film maker Bill MacDonald, who worked on HSA's recent film, Gatacre has just the right personality for teaching scuba to handicapped individuals. "The first thing you recognize is that each individual injury is unique to the person. So you have to be sensitive to the point where they'll open up to you. And Jim has the ability to draw these people out. He's the kind of individual they feel comfortable with. I guess patience is the key word," he said.

MacDonald, a Seal Beach resident, shot a large part of "Freedom in Depth" over a two-year period. Gatacre was the executive producer on that project. The film premiered at the Diving Equipment Manufacturers Assn. convention in Las Vegas in early February and is intended to help handicapped people "wake up to something in themselves," Gatacre said. Jean-Michel Cousteau is featured as the 23-minute film's "host," and 19 handicapped students were photographed in a variety of settings and activities.

The HSA hears from interested people all over the world, Gatacre said, and individuals from a number of countries have come to observe the classes. The association has helped other groups get started in Canada, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Australia. Other groups also geared to helping handicapped people learn to scuba dive are being formed in Japan, Sweden, England and Switzerland, Gatacre said. The HSA has assisted all of these organizations with advice delivered through the mail. Eventually, Gatacre said, he'd like to see a center for handicapped aquatic activities form in Orange County, but for the time being he runs the HSA out of his home office.

Certification Standards

Soon the association will be the main certifying agency for handicapped divers. During 1984, with assistance from the National Assn. of Underwater Instructors and the Professional Assn. of Diving Instructors, HSA developed standards for different levels of certification according to a physically limited diver's ability to take care of himself or herself and a diving companion. By June, Gatacre hopes HSA will also have begun training other diving instructors in the special techniques necessary for teaching the handicapped to scuba dive.

Terry Luxembourger learned scuba diving from Gatacre a little more than two years ago and has since become so proficient at the sport that he occasionally helps the HSA director teach his classes. Disabled by polio when he was a child, Luxembourger, 37, has enjoyed wheelchair basketball for many years, but "I've always wanted to dive."

"Once I found out about it (HSA), there was no holding me back. It was like a dream come true for me," he said. "You cannot believe the amount of mobility it gives you. The opportunities in the water for somebody who's disabled are endless."

"You're only held back by yourself," he added. "You are what you are and not what other people make you. The doors are there; all you have to do is open them."

Luxembourger said he has logged more than 150 hours in the water in about two years, and he goes on HSA dives at least once a month. "I've always wanted to be an astronaut," he said. "Well, I can't do that. But this is the closest I can get to another world. Somebody who can't even walk on land can now attain equality underwater with an able-bodied person."

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