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Out of the Wheelchair, Into the Deep Blue Sea


Daryl Rock has scuba dived in the lakes and rivers of Canada, in and around the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, as well as in Hawaii, the Bahamas, Bonaire, Fiji and Tahiti. That would be quite an accomplishment for anyone, but Rock is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair.

He is also the founder of the Freedom at Depth Foundation, an organization that teaches scuba diving to disabled people, and trains instructors to teach other disabled people  how to dive.

When not diving, Rock is a management consultant for Knowledge Mobilization Works, based in Ottawa, Canada, and chairman of the Rick Hansen Global Accessibility Map, a new online rating tool to help people with disabilities evaluate the accessibility of restaurants, hotels and other sites.

Daryl Rock and Hubert Chretien

Scuba diving is an exhilarating experience for everyone. For people with disabilities, it has an added benefit — the sense of freedom and independence that you feel underwater. – Daryl Rock

Rock answered some questions in advance of the United Nations International Day that honors people with disabilities, which this year falls on Saturday, December 3.

Could you tell us a little about your background?

I broke my neck in a car accident in 1983 and have used a wheelchair ever since. I was 19 years old. Technically a quadriplegic, I have some use of my arms and use a manual wheelchair. Although it changed my life 180 degrees, it didn’t stop me from setting and pursuing new goals. Being 19 was probably a good thing because I still had the youthful expectations that I was invincible and that anything was possible, I just had to adapt and do it differently. As soon as I left the hospital I returned to university full time, earning undergraduate and Masters degrees. During this time I also travelled the world extensively. My first trip outside of North America post injury was to France and Switzerland in 1985. I have been travelling ever since.

When did you discover scuba diving?

I was visiting the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in 1990. When we arrived at our designated site, all of the other tourists donned their masks and snorkels and began swimming. I sat in the boat not expecting anything other than to watch, when the boat crew came up and asked me if I’d like to go in. I had been an avid swimmer before my injury, but had not been in the ocean since. I was nervous, but they were so excited about the opportunity for me to do something I thought I’d never be able to do again that I simply said, “What the heck? What’s the worst that could happen?” I spent the next couple of hours snorkelling among the coral and fish life of the Great Barrier Reef. That whet my appetite. A few days later, while at an island resort, I approached the dive shop staff to ask if they’d be willing to take me diving. Like their counterparts a few days earlier, they were not only willing, they were excited — to them the disability was a non-issue, a challenge to overcome, not an obstacle!

After an hour explaining dive theory to me and an hour in the pool practicing, we headed out to a shipwreck for my first open water dive — it was fabulous! The marine life was amazing and the fact that I was doing something I totally did not expect I could ever do, was equally exciting for me.

What about it attracted you?

I have always loved the water and for me diving is simply a manifestation of that love.

It was something that I never thought I’d be able to do and in doing it I was able to prove to myself that most things are possible with the right attitude, training and opportunity. To be honest, the challenge excited me — not just to dive, but to dive well, and to dive safely.

It was and remains an opportunity to demonstrate to non-disabled people that I, and by extension, all people with disabilities are people first. The disability does not keep us from wanting and pursuing the same dreams and goals as others. When I go diving, I am usually the only disabled diver on the boat and all of the other able-bodied people don’t quite know what to expect or even what to say to me. But after the first dive, when we are all back on board the dive boat, the talk is always the same: “What did you see? Wasn’t the dive amazing? Did you see the turtle/stingray/shark/sea horse, etc?” All of the sudden, the disability is gone and we are all simply divers!

Could you describe your first experience?

My first experience was 21 years ago and yet I remember it vividly to this day. I was hyped on adrenaline — excited, scared but determined. My wife told me later she was scared to death, but up to and during the dive she simply encouraged me. The dive pros had never taken anyone with a physical disability diving before so we were all new to it. After getting me into a wetsuit and putting all my gear on, they lifted me to the side of the boat, one diver jumped into the water and when he was ready, the other simply pushed me in! I was in the water before I knew what hit me — literally! Fortunately I had remembered to keep one hand on my mask so that it didn’t come off and to clamp down on the regulator so I didn’t lose it. Oh yeah, and to breath – I remembered to breath! One-second I was on the gunnel of the boat and the next I was three feet under the Pacific Ocean – my first dive ever — before or after my injury.

After I bobbed to the surface I spit out my reg, told the divers I was ok and we headed off to the wreck. As I look back now, with proper training and a lot more experience, I realize it was a very simple dive — we went down to between 30 – 40 feet, swam around the wreck, admired the fish and the coral and were back on the surface half an hour later. But at the time I was in heaven. Breathing on my own 30 feet below the ocean…there were a lot of things going through my head and yet despite the amazement of what I was doing, despite the adrenaline coursing through my system, I was still able to appreciate the beauty I saw under the water. While some people, able-bodied and disabled, dive for bragging rights, I absolutely love the underwater experience. And that is, I believe, what has kept me in the sport — and encouraged me to become a better diver – I love the entire underwater experience. There are two aspects to this: it provides me with freedom – I am out of my chair and moving around the water independent of the wheels; and second, I love the underwater marinescape — both during the day and at night. Night dives introduce a whole different range of experiences and sites.

Where are your favorite places to dive?

Although I have dived in lakes and rivers in Canada, I am really a warm water diver. I love the colors and variety of fish and corals I see in warm waters. My favourite places are Hawaii and the Dutch island of Bonaire, in the Caribbean, where the reef is actually protected as a national park and therefore the underwater life is thriving. That said, Australia will always have a special spot in my heart because of the sheer adventurous spirit of the people — they didn’t care that I had a disability. They cared that I had a great dive experience. And I did!

Are some places better than others for people with disabilities?

The number one priority for diving, for anyone, is safety. Humans are not natural underwater breathers :) so safety is paramount. Proper training, proper equipment and dive locales confident in dealing with disabled divers are critical to both a person’s enjoyment and safety. Some resorts have never had a disabled diver show up and may refuse. Others may be nervous, so it is up to individuals with disabilities to ensure that they are properly trained and able to communicate their needs and abilities to the dive shop. All of that said, there are many dive shops around the USA and the world, that welcome people with disabilities — many with staff that have been trained to support them.

Is scuba diving good for people with other disabilities as well?

Scuba diving is a great sport for most people with disabilities — regardless of type of disability. We’ve trained spinal cord injured clients, people with CP, MS, blind individuals, etc., (before teaching someone we require a medical certificate stating they are healthy enough to dive. Certain types of health issues such as asthma or other related respiratory It has a direct impact on a person’s psycho-social life. It helps build confidence. It opens doors and removes barriers to social participation. By taking the wheelchair out of wheelchair sports and focusing on the sport, you are then able to focus on the person, not the disability. As I said above, before a dive you are the disabled guy, after the dive, you are simply another diver! I have witnessed this transformation of attitude first hand on hundreds of occasions as I dived over the years.

How does scuba diving help in the post-surgery or post-injury healing?

Rehab centers are very good at dealing with physical rehabilitation but spend little time on the psycho-social issues — what will I do now, who am I, can I still pursue the dreams I once had? When people are released back into the community they are left on their own. FADC and HSA in the USA offer people a chance to get “back in the saddle” so to speak. To meet new people, set and accomplish new goals, build confidence, build self-esteem, and, if nothing else, introduce people to an exciting sport!

Where will you dive next?

My next scuba diving will be to complete my advanced open water certification in the summer and then a trip to Hawaii in the fall. My dream trip is a two week live-aboard trip to the French Polynesian Islands in the South Pacific – Bora Bora, Tahiti, Raiatea and other less visited islands where the effects of tourism have had less of an impact on the reefs.

Tell me about your foundation

When I returned from Australia I was keen to follow up but wasn’t able to find a dive shop willing to work with me so I let it drop and got on with life. A few years later I was speaking with a friend who had an injury similar to mine and he told me about this guy who had been trained by the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA) in the United States, but lived in Ottawa Canada where I lived and was teaching people with disabilities how to dive — safely. I called him and he offered to teach and certify me. The course was a real eye opener — it made me realize how much I didn’t know the first time I had dived and gave me the tools and the confidence to become more of an expert in the sport. The fellow who taught me, Hubert Chretien, is now the Director General of our Foundation. Over the course of the training, which he did in his spare time after a full day of work at his “regular” job, he shared with me his desire to teach people with disabilities full time. We began planning how this could be done and decided the best way would be to create our own not for profit organization to secure private donor funding, because of the specialization required to train people with often severe disabilities to dive safely and with confidence.

In 2001 we created Freedom at Depth Canada and by 2003/4 we had raised enough funds to allow Hubert to take on the job of director general and instructor, full time. He truly loves to introduce people with disabilities to the wonders of scuba diving. He has certified hundreds of people with disabilities and certified hundreds more instructors. As a beneficiary of his passion, I simply wanted to help him in whatever way I could, achieve his dream. Hubert continues to be a passionate advocate for people with disabilities and the role scuba plays in helping achieve their goals.

The foundation is focused on three things: training people with disabilities how to dive (we provide training to people with different types of disabilities — mobility, visual, etc… the current Chair of the board, an excellent diver, is completely blind); training and certifying instructors from around the world on how to teach people with disabilities how to dive, thus expanding our reach into countries and communities we ourselves don’t have the resources to go; and providing a diving experience to hundreds of people with disabilities to help them realize that, if they can dive, there are very few limits to whatever else they wish to accomplish.

The classroom material is the PADI course — the same course all able-bodied divers are required to take. The real difference is the pool training which, although it is consistent with PADI requirements, is tailored to the needs and realities of people with disabilities. This material is used to develop and manage an individualized learning plan for each student with a disability. It is labor intensive, time consuming but it results in a well trained, safe diver. And that is the key. If you have been properly trained you have the confidence to dive.

How can interested people learn how to do dive?

In Canada people can contact Freedom at Depth.  In the USA, I would encourage people to contact the Handicapped Scuba Association, located in California, it is the world’s foremost scuba training organization for people with disabilities.


Originally published in Forbes Magazine, November 30, 2011


Tanya Mohn, Contributor

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