FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO ARE ABLE-BODIED, can you imagine what it would be like to dive with a disability? Try to picture how it would be without the full use of your legs, or perhaps eyes. Just how would you go about getting to the water's edge, never mind carrying out a dive?
In 1999 I was an observer on a course run by the International Association for Handicapped Divers (IAHD). The trainer was disabled diver Fraser Bathgate, a leading authority in this specialist area.
The course aspired to prepare diving instructors and divemasters for the role of partnering divers with disabilities, but I wasn't convinced that it achieved what it set out to do - one or two practical exercises hadn't ended well, and by the end of the course some of the delegates lacked confidence in their new skills.
Since then Fraser has played a key role in developing the range of IAHD courses, and now holds a senior position in the organisation. I wanted to see how the courses had progressed, so I enrolled on the IAHD Pro Trainer course, designed for instructors who want to teach divers with a wide range of disabilities.
The IAHD website states that this course will enable delegates to learn about the psychological and physical demands on divers with disabilities, as well as providing training in the skills required to plan and carry out a dive.
It starts with pre-read material on a CD-Rom - the Pro Manual - and a DVD containing a number of documentaries.
The Pro Manual has useful, easy-to-read chapters on medical issues and how these relate to diving. It does its job as a guide more than adequately, but as a pre-read to prepare you for the course, it lacks the specific aims and objectives, knowledge checks and reviews that would make it a more structured aid to learning. Perhaps this is something the IAHD is considering for the future?
The DVD documentaries are mostly about Fraser and his work with various organisations promoting access to diving for people with disabilities, but they stand alone, with no obvious connection with the pre-read material.
If they were to be integrated into the manual as part of a pre-read package, with self-learning questions designed around the documentaries, much of the first day's training could be covered before the course.
Our course was held at the Blue Planet Aquarium in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, although I'm told they can be run anywhere that has adequate facilities.
Fraser introduced himself and the course, then we shared our reasons for being there. Kat, Paulo, Terry and Wendy were all Blue Planet diving instructors, on the course as part of the aquarium's drive to be more inclusive.
It wants to offer divers with disabilities the opportunity to take part in its highly successful shark-diving programme.
Dave had travelled up from middle England - he wanted to expand his skills and offer divers with disabilities some of what he had learnt over the years as an instructor.
We started with a series of lectures on the psychological and physical needs of people with disabilities and considerations when diving. There was a good mix of learning aids, all well-prepared, though I would question the repetitive use of the pre-course documentaries.
The lectures are not all trainer-led. Following each topic, Fraser encouraged us to share our thoughts and feelings in mini-debriefs. The learning was at its strongest at these points and there were several "light-bulb" moments, quickly followed by Fraser's supportive smile and a "you've got it."
Fraser managed the lectures well. As one delegate later said: "He gave us the information without bogging us down in unnecessary detail - he stuck to the salient points."
The first day wasn't all lectures. To help us understand what it's like to have a disability, Fraser took us round the aquarium to establish just how disabled-friendly it was.
The public areas got our thumbs up, but the access points into the water for divers with disabilities were not the best. For example, a wheelchair-user would struggle with the steps to the pool's edge, and some of the confined spaces in the changing facility. In Blue Planet's defence, when the centre was built these areas were designed for employees, not the public. However, the recent Disability Discrimination Act states that organisations offering a service must make reasonable adjustments so that people with disabilities can access them.
I later asked Rob Bennet, one of the aquarium managers, what Blue Planet was doing to modify its facilities.
"Our work is ongoing in this area," he said. "We're building new changing rooms and will soon be constructing a ramp to the pool access point... we've also learnt that we have to treat each person with a disability as an individual, as they may have specific needs, so we encourage them to call.
"Now we have the staff to cater for them, we should be better prepared."
But for now we learnt that overcoming obstacles can require a little imagination combined with common sense - how, for example, old escalator matting and children's plastic sledges can make a wheelchair-user's diving experience easier.
This process of putting ourselves in others' shoes gave us food for thought for the evening. On a more practical note, Fraser set us the task of learning diving signals for sight-impaired divers.
On the second day, we soon escaped the classroom for the pool. One of the first practical tasks for an instructor assisting a disabled diver is addressing problems that might occur in kitting-up.
One of us had to role-play a paraplegic diver, with the others assisting in kitting-up. We made all the mistakes: no communication with the diver; pushing and pulling in ways that risked injuring legs; and unnecessary pampering, which served to exclude the diver from the diving experience.
On one occasion we dressed the role-player in a wetsuit all the way to the neck, even though paraplegics have perfectly good use of their arms and can do this themselves.
In the debriefing, we learnt the importance of including the diver fully in the experience, and of holding a pre-brief to remove any mental blocks and assess the level of assistance required.
Importantly, we learnt that disabled divers may be able to manage unaided many of the tasks involved in diving.
Fraser later said that he ran this exercise without explaining the correct methods first in the expectation that we would make mistakes, and would only then show us the correct way.
I wasn't convinced. It's true that we learn from our "mistakes", but I sensed some disorientation among the delegates on being told that they had carried out a task wrongly without first knowing what was right. I would suggest explaining, demonstrating, imitating (with each other followed by a debrief) and practising (the real thing) as a more appropriate approach.
At the end of this session I noticed further disorientation among the delegates when Fraser told us: "Only 1% of the divers you'll come across need this level of assistance - 99% can kit up on their own."
Once in our wetsuits, we learnt some new methods of moving around in the water: how to turn ourselves around on the surface without using our legs and hips, as well as the "Fraser" arm stroke, a way of propelling yourself through the water which could be useful for any diver, especially in silty conditions when the use of legs can reduce visibility.
I and the other delegates seemed to be feeling that the course was progressing well. Though daunting, we were all up for the real thing - getting into the water with a diver with a real disability.
But first Fraser role-played a paraplegic diver with a little diving experience. Again we were in at the deep end, and collectively made a bit of a hash of it: Fraser's legs got kicked, tasks he could do for himself were done for him, and there was little teamwork.
We surfaced a bit disappointed in ourselves. As one trainee put it: "We'd not talked to each other first - we'd not worked out properly who was going to do what and who would lead the dive."
We had another go, and this time were a slicker act. One of the salient debrief comments was that "you really have to plan every small thing, be specific, work as a team and know what each other is doing".
My role had been to look after Fraser's legs, so I had seen nothing of the sharks and rays in the tank - but that wasn't why I was there. My job was to focus 100% on the diver's needs.
The second group put our learning into practice with Stuart, a wheelchair-user who works at the Blue Planet. Stuart had been to the Red Sea and described his dives there as "a fantastic, unforgettable experience, one of the highlights of my life."
For some of the delegates, taking Stuart on a dive in the shark tank was the best part of the course. "I got more out of this than with Fraser, this was for real!" said one later, while another "got a real feel for what it's all about - initially it might have been a bit scary, but to see Stuart after the dive made it worthwhile. He was buzzing and hasn't stopped talking about it for weeks."
For a sight-impaired person, diving can offer similar challenges and levels of enjoyment as for a wheelchair-user, or indeed for an able-bodied diver.
Ever stopped to listen under water? Reefs can be noisy, and the experience of hearing dolphins or whales under water stays you forever. To feel a hermit crab scuttle across the palm of your hand can be as sense-provoking as seeing one.
So with a new set of considerations, we planned how we would take a sight-impaired diver into the water.
Our new signals consisted of a series of squeezes, pressure applications and circles in the palm of the hand. With blacked-out masks, we took it in turns to role-play a sight-impaired diver.
This was another powerful experience. As one trainee said later: "When you put on the blacked-out mask your other senses start to take over - you hear things that you wouldn't otherwise hear, and your sense of touch becomes enhanced."
All agreed that the practical day had been the best part of the course - "you gain a different insight into diving, and discover that a disabled diver can experience diving just as much as any other person can," said one delegate.
Our last day saw us out of the pool and into a session on dive-trip logistics. Using Blue Planet's outside otter pool as an imaginary dive site, we were set the task of planning a dive for a group of divers with a variety of disabilities. After a lot of discussion and the exchanging of views, we submitted our plan to Fraser.
We surprised ourselves with what we had learnt in the short time we had been together, because our plan brought together nearly everything required.
Fraser added some more during the debrief, bringing home what one delegate described as the sense of "how I need more open-water experience - I need to continue with this rather than just do the course". Another described being "ready to go - it will be a challenge, but at least I'm not on my own, as I have my colleagues to rely on."
The course ended with some what now?-type thoughts. The Blue Planet staff were all looking forward to putting their skills into practice. Dave hoped to build connections with those who could benefit from his skills. The IAHD has a members' area to give ongoing support.
Had the course improved since 1999? Definitely. The feedback from the trainees was the proof: "fulfilling... an enjoyable experience... I'd recommend it...
I feel very well prepared for the role, especially after the practical stuff."
This latter sentiment was shared by all, some suggesting that more practical work would be beneficial, especially if it involved an open-water dive with divers with a range of disabilities.
However, those who suggested this also appreciated the tricky logistics of arranging this as part of a course.
Fraser later commented that this course was more practical-based than the one I had witnessed in 1999.
He's right, and it also has more structure, but still more practical work would improve it. If the manual and the rest of the pre-course material were developed into a more structured pre-read package, this would save time for more practical-based learning.
The biggest lesson we all learnt was summed up by one of the delegates: "I didn't realise how independent disabled divers could be - I now know it's my job to help them achieve what we can without doing everything for them. The disability shouldn't stop someone diving - you just need to plan more around it."
Fraser tells me that the IAHD is preparing two new courses, the Pirate Fish Diver for people with the mental age of 12, and the Recon Diver, which is for more experienced divers who wish to learn more skills.
The IAHD Pro Trainer Course costs £400, including all manuals and registration. Further details can be found at www.iahd.org. Brendan O'Brien is qualified as a trainer in adult education as well as in assessment and quality assurance. He also holds a Masters in Education, where he specialised in Training and Evaluation.
Fraser Bathgate with, behind him from left, Terry, Paulo, Dave, Kat and Wendy
The helpful team assist in the kitting-up process - overlooking the fact that the diver has full use of arms.
Working out how to get Fraser into the pool.
Teamwork with Stuart in the shark tank.