Many of us go through phases of depression or anxiety, and feel constrained and limited in opportunity, sapped of a zeal for life. Then, there are those of us who face physical as well as mental disability. Whatever one’s desire in life, it can be pretty hard to achieve it with impairment such as cerebral palsy or the absence of legs. But that said, you may find that some people with disabilities have a different perspective: While we see a disability, they see ability, opportunity and challenge. That hunger to do more, which humbles us when we see it among people we consider disadvantaged, is an attitude commonly found among the participants at Diveheart.

Diveheart is an inspirational organisation that invites children, adults and veterans with disabilities, and takes them scuba diving. With the help of certified adaptive dive buddies, the underwater world, with its absence of gravity, enables people to float and take in the aquatic wonders, or to move their limbs in ways they haven’t done in years, or have never done. It’s called scuba therapy – and the programmes at Diveheart are a testament to its success. In the underwater world, disabilities go out of the window – a person is just a scuba diver, like anyone else. The experience of diving excites and inspires many disabled people. The aim of Diveheart is to open their minds to this new world, and to have that excitement and enthusiasm translate to their wider lives as well. If they can conquer one challenge, then they can conquer another, and another.  

Diveheart was founded in the USA by Jim Elliott. When Jim left college, he embarked on a successful media career with the Chicago Tribune, WGN Radio and CLTV News. But in 1997, he packed it in and started teaching people with disabilities. He was inspired a great deal by his own experiences – his daughter was born partially blind. She had a pretty tough time at school with bullies and she grew frustrated at being treated differently. When she was nine, she could just about read letters two inches from her face, and she threw down her cane and declared to her dad that she wasn’t going to learn Braille. Jim had previously found out about a blind skiing group and had been volunteering there for quite a while. Inspired by his daughter’s positive attitude, he signed her up immediately. She got the hang of it pretty quickly, and was soon inspiring her classmates with pictures of her skiing down mountain slopes.

With Jim’s desire to help disabled people unlock their potential and confidence, the diving aspect came in a bit later, and in 2001, he officially set up the non-profit charity called Diveheart. Jim had actually started diving in college while doing his journalism major – he thought it prudent to preempt that possible interview with Jacques Cousteau, where he would have to know what he was talking about. While the interview may not have happened, a passion for life certainly emerged. Remembering that compulsion that he felt, and alongside the experiences of teaching blind skiers and the very personal experience of teaching his own daughter and seeing improvements in her, a light went on in Jim’s head – to start up an organisation that invites disabled people to scuba dive.

Jim recalls the idea, saying, “All the time I’m thinking, ‘Right, from my experience [learning to dive] in college, what happens if we get them out of their wheelchairs, get them in the water and teach them how to dive?’”

With his passion for helping disabled people, a love of the underwater world, and a big leap of faith, Jim decided to leave his career in the media world and devote himself full time to teaching the disabled to scuba dive. Such is his commitment, and his sincere belief in what he is doing, that he doesn’t take a salary. In doing so, he hopes to inspire his team by setting an example for them and other non-profit leaders.

Jim Elliott discusses Diveheart and his story at TEDx

What sort of disabilities do you cater to?

Diveheart does not discriminate when it comes to disabilities. We help people with all physical and cognitive disabilities.

How has Diveheart progressed over the years?

Diveheart has grown steadily and responsibly, being good stewards of all donated resources. Hence, Diveheart has been able to inspire and change the dive industry as well as the rehabilitation and medical community.

What are some Diveheart’s activities?

  1. Conducting scuba therapy research with university medical centers
  2. Running Diveheart Scuba Experience programmes for those with disabilities around the world
  3. Planning to build the deepest warm water therapy pool in the world for research, rehabilitation, education training, and to provide vocational opportunities
  4. Promoting and inspiring other Adaptive Scuba Therapy programmes
  5. Using the Diveheart Adaptive Scuba training programme and materials to train and inspire instructors and dive buddies around the world, growing Adaptive Scuba programmes everywhere and serving local communities of people with disabilities
  6. Creating Adaptive Dive trip opportunities to give instructors, buddies and Adaptive divers the experience they need to safely conduct Adaptive Scuba programmes.

Give me some notable examples of individuals you’ve seen improve as a result of Diveheart’s help.

  1. Nick: Scuba Therapy and Autism
  2. Greg: Scuba Therapy and Traumatic Brain Injuries
  3. Ian: Scuba Therapy and pain relief
  4. Robert: Scuba Therapy and spinal cord injures
  5. Gold Star Families

There are many more stories in the Diveheart Media Kit (PDF download) or the Diveheart YouTube channel.

What responses have you received regarding scuba diving as a therapy? 

It’s been amazing. Divers, instructors, therapists, researchers and those in the medical community are blown away by what we’ve done and our vision and mission for Scuba Therapy.

Have you received attention from other institutions (academic, hospitals, etc.) concerning scuba therapy?

Yes, we’ve hosted six Adaptive Scuba Symposiums, which have featured professors, physicians, researchers and others in the scuba therapy world and been part of over a dozen scuba therapy research projects done by university medical centres. Many of the studies are videotaped and available on the Diveheart YouTube channel.

Do you operate outside of the US?

Yes, we are worldwide. Last year alone we launched programmes in Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and Honduras. Since 2001 we’ve done programmes in China, Australia, Israel, the UK, all over the Caribbean, and in hundreds of cities around the U.S.

What does the future hold for Diveheart?

We hope to revolutionise rehabilitation through zero gravity and Scuba Therapy. We hope to inspire people of all abilities to “Imagine the Possibilities” in their lives, thereby inspiring others in their communities and around the world. The deepest warm water therapy pool in the world will help make that happen.

Cover photo © Diveheart 

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