Famed for its spectacular diving and professional dive industry, Cayman is also proud of its reputation as an accessible and reliable destination for disabled divers. Its warm, clear water is free of currents, and Grand Cayman offers a variety of dive experiences ideal for divers with disabilities, as Cody Unser discovered more than a decade ago. Confined to a wheelchair since she was 12 years old, Unser, of the famed racing family, says scuba diving changed her life.
“Physically it takes me away from the chair; being in the water frees me from the grips of gravity. Everything else leaves my mind and I focus on something new and exciting,” she says. “I’m free!”
Now 27 years old and a graduate student, Cody is an advocate of diving for the disabled, reaching out through the Cody Unser First Step Foundation. In 2011 the foundation teamed up with Johns Hopkins Medicine, a group of recovering veterans and the Cayman Islands for a 4-day pilot study on how scuba has a positive impact on people with spinal cord injuries, the first conventional study of its kind. With 26 people in the group, Cody remains impressed with how Cayman accommodated them.
“The dive operators know what they are doing with disabled divers,” she says. “They were so comfortable with us, no hesitation at all. They treated us like they would any other divers, gave us a sense of inclusion, no segregation. It made it more enjoyable for all of us – we had a blast!”
Ryan Chalmers is the most experienced diver in Stay-Focused, an organization that teaches teens and young adults with disabilities to dive, he too has high praise for Cayman’s dive professionals.
“There is a fine line when it comes to working with someone with a disability,” he says, “sometimes you can be to helpful and sometimes you can’t be helpful enough and the staff in Cayman do a great job learning and understanding what the different needs are for each person with a disability. They make an effort to not just get you through the dive, but make it as comfortable and fun as possibility just like they do for the able bodied population.”
Ryan earned Rescue Diver and Divemaster certifications with Sunset Divers and he is the first disabled diver to completeOcean Frontiers’ “Green Shorts Challenge” by diving all 55 dive sites on the East End - no small feat because the challenge takes most divers at least 150 individual dives to complete over several visits to the island.
“It was impressive to see Ryan and his dive buddy Roger Muller check off every dive site,” says Ocean Frontiers co-owner Steve Broadbelt. "As dive operators we are in a unique position to provide a freedom of the bounds of gravity to these spirited new divers. It is inspiring to see the determination to break down these barriers and put their trust in us to share the underwater world. We are very proud to have Ryan as the first disabled diver and he'll certainly not be the last."
Red Sail Sports Operations Manager Rod McDowall says Cayman’s dive culture includes a full understanding of the needs of all divers, including the disabled. “As much as the beauty of the underwater world is the most significant attraction, there has always been a psychological ‘third dimension’ that allows divers to escape into another world, both physically and mentally. It gives us great pleasure to help divers with disabilities make this entry into another world and have the escape they deserve.”
“It is one thing to take abled-bodied, new divers in the water to show them the underwater world, but to take a paraplegic, quadriplegic diver, or someone missing a leg or arm, into a weightless atmosphere, or introducing a vet with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome to a calmness of the underwater world – it’s priceless,” says Sunset House General Manager Keith Sahm.
“The facilities in Cayman are awesome,” says Shelley Unser, Cody’s mother and head of the foundation. The group stayed at the Marriott Grand Cayman, which offers accessible rooms and facilities, and when they asked to use the hotel’s seaside pool for pre-dive pool work, the hotel agreed to it. “They took a huge gamble by letting us take over the pool, but the guests seemed to love it!” she said. “It was a big motivator for everyone because we could see the ocean from the pool.”
Stay-Focused President Roger Mueller says they have been running programs to Grand Cayman for 11 years, and the organization has certified more than 70 people. “The diving teams at Red Sail and Sunset House, in particular, have been instrumental to our success. We have exceeded necessary ratios between Instructors/Dive Masters and divers on every trip, and they are experienced and comfortable in working with persons with disabilities."
Mueller also praises Red Sail Sports, Sunset House and Ocean Frontiers for having dive boats spacious enough to allow mobility. Diveheart is another organization in the community for disabled divers with partnerships in the Cayman Islands, including Divetech.
“I know when I send divers with disabilities there they will be working with instructors and divemasters who know how to handle someone with a disability,” says founder Jim Elliott. Diveheart will be in Grand Cayman from December 6 - 13, 2014 at Cobalt Coast Dive Resort, and disabled divers can dive with Divetech, learn to dive, or take a buddy or instructor program.
The things that make the Cayman Islands special for able-bodied divers show the destination’s variety and abundance of diving opportunities for anyone who wants to become a diver. Cody Unser says the sport changed her life and this has inspired her to share her experience with others who are disabled. Her foundation helps set up Intro to Scuba courses at select military bases where wounded soldiers are recovering.
“It gave me confidence, a sense of independence that I thought I would never have. We want to get people out of their comfort zone and give them the sense that they can travel. People don’t realize the power of the intro to scuba.”
“Now that I am a Dive Master and able to help teach scuba diving, that has given me the ability to grow in so many other aspects of my life,” says Ryan Chalmers.