Scuba diving programme in KK opens 'whole new world' to wheelchair users

KOTA KINABALU: A wheelchair user for most of her life, charity worker Iziani Hayati Abbas never dreamed she would have the chance to try out certain activities, including scuba diving.

However, she found a whole new world underwater and gained a new sense of confidence when members of non-profit organisation Diveheart, along with volunteers and doctors, came together to train persons with disabilities for a discovery dive programme.

The 39-year-old, diagnosed with spina bifida from birth, was part of a five-member group that took part in this programme, held for the first time here on Monday and Tuesday (Sept 4 and 5).

“We learned how to scuba dive, thanks to Diveheart and all the volunteers. We went to open waters to test out our new skills,” said Iziani, the youngest of five siblings.

With tears in her eyes, she said the experience was not only educational and memorable, but an emotional one for her because when in the water she felt like she was "fine" and no different from anyone else.

“I did not expect to be able to do this – diving. When I first tried to get into the water on Monday, I got scared and had to be brought back to shore.

"(On Tuesday), I made it about 3m down and saw some fish. It was so beautiful; a whole new world opened up for me during my dive," she said when interviewed recently.

Lidwina Isidore Andilah, 29, who became paralysed from the waist down following a fall when she was five, said she had always been into extreme sports such as paragliding and rafting.

“As for diving, I kept this intention at the back of my mind because I did not know who to approach and was not sure if anyone could cater to my situation for this activity,” she said.

She said growing up with friends who always went diving and swimming spurred her to try new things and move out of her comfort zone.

“For others like me out there, don’t be afraid to try because we can do what others can do too.

"We just need some help getting there,” she said.

For dives like this, each participant needed five to six volunteers to help them get out to sea, dive and return to shore.

Nurizzati Zahidah Hasanudin, 26, was quick to change her social media profile picture after her dive at Mamutik Island on Monday.

“I am so happy and excited. I want to do this again and I know that with the right trainers, guidance and support, we too can do much more than just sitting on our wheelchairs,” she said.

Diveheart's Chicago-based founder Jim Elliott, Borneo coordinator Ernest Teo and Malaysia Diveheart ambassador Syed Abdul Rahman, who also founded Kids Scuba Malaysia, were present to guide these new divers throughout the programme.

Syed said their mission is to build confidence, independence and self-esteem in children, adults and veterans with disabilities through scuba diving, scuba therapy and related activities.

He said the vision is to instil the “can do” spirit in participants, inspiring them to take on challenges that they may not have considered before out of fear.

“Using zero gravity and the adventure paradigm, we help participants believe that if they can scuba dive they can do anything. We use the tagline ‘Imagine the Possibilities’ to encourage them to overcome their fears,” he said.

Elliott said seeing the participants being able to "stand up" for the first time underwater made everything worthwhile.

He said this helped them identify not as someone with a disability, but as a diver.

“It’s powerful. Stories stick, and they can share these and influence people around them. This will have a ripple effect and inspire others to do other things in life,” he said.

Also present were Prof Dr Nazira Hasnan of Universiti Malaya and Dr Thor Ju An from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital here, along with over 40 volunteers from all walks of life including medical students and officials.

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