Aki Nakaoka, from Kyoto, Japan, a woman who can only move her neck and fingertips, has successfully completed her scuba course and was certified HSA C-level scuba diver. She says, “Dreams can become true when people with disabilities have the bravery to move one step forward, and are lucky to meet people who can and will support them.”

This July, in Ito city, on the Izu peninsula, in Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture, Aki’s smiling face appeared at the waters’ surface after finishing her final certifying scuba dive. She was filled with accomplishment, saying, “It was great! And I couldn’t believe I was able to dive!” All of HSA Japans’ staff gave a big applause and were as happy and filled with accomplishment as Aki.

Aki was working as an airline cabin attendant when at the age of 25 she was diagnosed with distal muscular dystrophy, a disorder that caused her muscles to decline slowly. Within three years she needed a wheelchair. Now, she can still speak and eat but can only move her neck and fingertips slightly. Most of the time, she stays in bed at her home.

She became disheartened at the beginning, as the disability began to cause considerable inconvenience in her daily life. When friends invited her for camping, she wouldn’t participate because she was concerned about causing trouble for them. But her true feelings were: “Honestly, I would like to spend time with them camping, but shouldn’t make that decision because I can’t do it.” But then something happened to cause her to think, “I should challenge and enjoy my life.” It hit her strongly when she was questioned by her friends: “Aki, you don’t want to have fun with us?”

Just like she became a cabin attendant, being fascinated by the world of flying, the unknown underwater world called to her, and an image of scuba diving came to her. She got information from the Internet that the Handicapped Scuba Association Japan would be running a course in Ito and decided to make contact.

She met Mikio Ota, President and Instructor of HSA JAPAN, and he accepted her into the scuba course. The highly experienced Ota, who has spent 17 years as an HSA Instructor, has issued scuba certifications to approximately 670 handicapped scuba divers.

Aki was taken into the sea using an amphibious wheelchair. HSA Instructors floated her from the chair in waist-deep water and towed her to deep water to start the dive. Even though she needed this physical support, she had repeatedly practised her scuba skills until she was able to perform them correctly.

“I felt Nature doesn’t offer any [special privileges] for people with disabilities,” said Aki, after becoming a certified scuba diver, “but instead it offers big room to accept anyone equally, if they are brave.”

Now Aki enjoys exploring the incredible underwater world. Bravely facing the challenges that her disability throws at her, through scuba diving and her own strong will, she is able to enjoy life once again.

About the HSA

PrintFounded by Jim Gatacre in 1981, the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA) has been dedicated to improving the physical and social wellbeing of the estimated 58 million Americans with disabilities, and millions of others worldwide, through their unique aquatic therapy and rehabilitation programmes, snorkelling, scuba diving and dive travel.

Working closely with the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), HSA developed an alternate set of physical performance requirements and multi-level certification, providing safe methods to certify Open Water Scuba Divers with a wide range of disabilities. In 1986, encouraged by PADI and NAUI, Jim wrote and taught the first HSA Instructor Training Course, and HSA became an independent Certification Agency. For his work in the field of underwater education, Jim has received the 1995 NAUI Contribution to Diving Award, SSI Pro5000 Diver Certification, and 2015 DEMA Reaching Out Award.

Made up of over 8,000 specially trained underwater educators, dive buddies and scuba divers with disabilities, in over 40 countries, the HSA’s unique all-inclusive programmes assure that people with disabilities are given the opportunity to receive quality “life-changing” scuba and snorkel diving education and inclusion in mainstream activities through dive travel adventures. Interaction between the person with disabilities and their environment is the final stage of rehabilitation.

You can support HSA and their divers by becoming an HSA Instructor, Dive Buddy or Supporting Member. Those with disabilities that wish to become Open Water scuba divers or snorkel/skin divers, visit www.hsascuba.com or email hsa@hsascuba.com for more information.