Scuba diving is the only gravity-free activity in the world. For the physically impaired, this is an especially attractive fact. “The obstacles that individuals with disabilities face on land disappear in this forgiving gravity-free underwater world,” says Jim Elliot, the founder of Diveheart, an Illinois-based organization which submerges the disabled. The organization works both in pools and open water and now has programs from Atlanta to Asia. They are the world’s leading force in adaptive scuba diving.
The idea for Diveheart, which Elliot started in 2000, came about while instructing a group of blind people in skiing. His oldest daughter, who is blind, was involved. Elliot was struck by the enormous psychological benefits that the activity afforded the participants and wondered how it could be expanded. “I got to thinking, ‘Gosh, you can only ski at certain times and in certain places but there’s a pool in every community,’” Elliot recalls. Some years later, Elliot left his job in the media business to build Diveheart. Though founded with his own money in Illinois, the organization is now supported by individuals and foundations around the world. Diveheart has trained “well over 1,000 instructors” in the Caribbean, Malaysia, China, Australia, Israel, England, Singapore and hundreds of cities in the U.S. Recently they launched a team in Borneo.
“The obstacles that individuals with disabilities face on land disappear in the forgiving gravity-free underwater world [of scuba]…”
The organization works with all kinds of disabilities and conditions, from muscular dystrophy to blindness to those suffering with PTSD. Instructors work within a unique training program that Elliot developed, part of which involves trainers undergoing disabled “simulations”, having to do the lessons with a given disability. Diveheart also participates regularly in university research studies aimed at figuring out the various therapeutic benefits that diving affords to the mentally and physically handicapped. We reached out to Elliot to hear more.
How did you first get involved in adaptive scuba?
I have a long history of working with people with disabilities. My dad was a disabled army vet; growing up one of my best friends had cerebral palsy and I’d walk him to school because the bullies would pick on him otherwise. I married a lady with two boys and they had their issues, healthwise, and then we had two children together. My oldest daughter was blind and my youngest ended up having scoliosis. I was a journalism major at Northern Illinois University. I started diving thinking that if I ever met Jacques Cousteau as a journalist I better know how to scuba dive. I just fell in love with it.
How did you get Diveheart off the ground?
I started diving thinking that if I ever met Jacques Cousteau as a journalist I better know how to scuba dive. I just fell in love with it.
My youngest daughter went to Shriners Hospital to have work done on her spine. I knew quite a few people with physical disabilities from there. When I first started I had this idea for the trademark, the dive heart, and I went to a trademark attorney friend of mine. I told him my crazy idea. He and his partners decided to handle all of the legal registration stuff pro-bono. They’ve been watching our back ever since and haven’t taken a dime. Could not have done it without them. We initially started with Shriners Hospital and the Rehab Institute of Chicago then started working with the VA hospitals and special rec associations. We began to expand. I started teaching instructors all over. I became the number one instructor trainer in the world for adaptive diving.
How did you learn how to train others?
Having created a training program for the blind ski group, and working with my own kids, I had a fount of knowledge that was very helpful. There were some organizations out there and I compared what training programs worked best. We worked a few for some years but I saw a lot of flaws and about five years ago we launched our own training program and certifying organization. Now we train instructors all over the world and have really become the cutting edge training program for adaptive scuba.
What is the training course like for divers?
We require the person to begin training through a standard agency, like PADI. They learn the basic science of diving (the number one PADI program in the world is in Key Largo and they do our programs every month). They go through that as far as they can then they come to Diveheart. They get a book and do online training. Then we get them in a pool. That’s maybe all they want to do. But if they want more we get them into open water. If they can’t afford to take one of our trips, then we have scholarships.
What is some of the research Diveheart has been involved in?
When autistic divers go underwater the ambient pressure is soothing, like a weighted blanket.
With Midwestern University we did the first study on autism and scuba therapy. In most cases this is a cognitive disability but sometimes there’s a physical component as well. When autistic divers go underwater the ambient pressure is soothing, like a weighted blanket. Going underwater also eliminates surface distractions, like a sensory deprivation room. That helps them focus. I remember we once took a kid who was non-verbal, who stood up at the end of a twenty minute session in four feet of water and said to the teacher, “That was amazing, I’d like to try that again.” Our mouths just fell open.
Researchers from the University of Illinois found, working with our participants around the country, that the very first pool session is the most powerful. That’s the one that creates the paradigm shift. Suddenly it’s not Johnny in a wheelchair anymore, it’s Johnny the scuba diver.
In 2011, doctors from John Hopkins found that when you get deep it creates a serotonin kick. They were working with one of the teams we had trained down in Cayman. Eighty percent of the PTSD symptoms of the veterans involved in the study were alleviated on this trip. We knew anecdotally that diving helps with pain management. We’ve had guys with chronic pain say to us on dive trips that they become pain-free for the first time. It’ll last that whole week then two additional weeks after.
Right now we’re doing research with Northwestern and Midwestern universities on developing a ventilator system that will allow for fully paralyzed divers to get deeper. We’re working with university medical researchers in Malaysia as well. The top people in tourism there want to make Malaysia a destination for adaptive scuba, which is really exciting.
What are some ways in which you have seen scuba change lives?
We had one Marines veteran, Greg Rodriguez, who had a traumatic brain injury. He tried to commit suicide twice before he came to us. He told me, “What the doctors said I have is a traumatic brain injury but I call it my worst nightmare. But Diveheart changed everything.” Diving turned his life around. We also had a young girl who was a barefoot water-skiing champion, Amber Rangel. She caught a jump wrong at nineteen, landed on her head and is now a C5 quad. She was so depressed she wouldn’t leave her room. Her sister drug her screaming to one of our events.
If someone is born with a disability, it could be the first time in their life they see themselves upright. That’s the high for me
When I got her standing up underwater and she looked down and saw herself vertically, using her breath to control her buoyancy, totally independent, she said, “Oh my god, I’m standing up for the first time since my injury.” This happens a lot. If someone is born with a disability, it could be the first time in their life they see themselves upright. That’s the high for me: seeing someone get that aha moment. It just changes everything. Now they focus on what they can do, not what they can’t. That inspires people around them, too. It’s a ripple effect that really can touch society.