Freedom and adventure await under the water

Disabled diving instructor tells of how scuba diving can give a person a new lease of life, and says that the sport saved him after a horrific accident.

Mark Slingo, director of training and marketing at Disabled Divers International, enjoys the wonders of the sea. Courtesy Mark Slingo
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DUBAI // When a disabled person asks Mark Slingo for help to try scuba diving, he offers a first-hand account of what it is like to sit at the edge of a boat and plunge into open water with a severe impairment.

After falling from a third-floor balcony in 2005, when he was 22, Mr Slingo suffered such severe spinal injuries he is now nine tenths paraplegic.

“Diving saved me after my accident,” he said. “Diving is one of the most liberating experiences for anybody, able bodied or disabled.

“It removes mobility devices and puts you in a situation where you are back on a level playing field and in another world.”

Mr Slingo was already passionate about the water sport before his life turned upside down 11 years ago.

“I was lucky enough to have been involved in scuba diving before my accident,” said the 33-year-old, who is now the director of training and marketing at Malta-based Disabled Divers International (DDI), a non-profit organisation designed to promote, develop and conduct scuba diving training programmes for the disabled.

“I then received the invitation from my former dive centre in Thailand to see if I could continue teaching.

“So just a month and a half after my discharge from Stoke Mandeville Spinal Injuries unit in the UK, I was back teaching diving.

“Since my return to diving, I have continued learning, working my way up the PADI [Professional Association of Diving Instructors] ladder to the highest rating that can be held by a PADI professional: course director, which means that I don’t just teach diving but also teach others to become instructors.”

The Briton travels the world teaching disabled people to dive and recently hosted a training programme at Dive Atlantis in Dubai.

Mr Slingo also wanted to visit the emirate to spread the message that most people can – and should – attempt diving.

“The great thing about scuba diving is that it offers someone like myself a chance to throw off the constraints I have on land and dive into an environment where I am the same as everyone else,” he said.

“The only difference is that I swim with my arms rather than my legs.

“I want to be able to share that feeling with other people who maybe feel they could not do something that is still considered an extreme sport.

“They can, and in many cases disabled divers are better than non-disabled divers.”

That, said Mr Slingo, is because people with a disability tend to have an adventurous side.

“Even if the person has a more limiting condition, provided that they pass the medical, they can be taken diving and see and do things that 95 per cent of people will never see,” he said.

The most common disabilities the instructors at DDI have worked with are amputations, spinal injuries, cerebral palsy, sight impairment, hearing Impairment, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome, Joubert syndrome (a rare brain malformation which affects balance and coordination), multiple sclerosis and autism.

Mr Slingo said the most rewarding aspect of his job was in changing people’s perceptions of what they can do for themselves.

“That and also being able to highlight the possibilities of what is available for disabled people,” he said.

“ And alerting the world to the fact that life is not over following the onset of a disability.”