On one of those almost-perfect California winter afternoons, when the slight bite in the air is offset by sun, fluffy white clouds and a turquoise sky, six scuba aficionados met at Divers Cove in Laguna Beach.
Before long, four had changed into wet suits and were beginning the steep journey down to the beach. As they progressed, members of the group drew a few stares from other Saturday afternoon beachgoers, for most of the divers wheeled rather than walked down the ramp. Then they used their powerful arms to shift themselves down the steps while a few able-bodied companions carried wheelchairs and heavy scuba gear to sea level. Eventually, two able-bodied and two handicapped divers made their way into the waves breaking on the beach.
It was another afternoon outing of the Handicapped Scuba Assn. (HSA), a nonprofit organization whose members are breaking through some of the stereotypes associated with the disabled. Founded by San Clemente resident Jim Gatacre in mid-1981 and incorporated in January, 1983, the association has trained about 40 individuals--handicapped and able-bodied--in the rules of safe diving. In doing so, the association encountered and overcame much diving industry resistance to the idea that handicapped people can be competent divers. HSA has also produced educational literature, devised a diver certification process for different levels of handicaps and produced a film, "Freedom in Depth," which premiered recently in Las Vegas.
Today the HSA is known by divers around the world, but its beginnings were more humble. In 1975 a UC Irvine staff member got Gatacre involved in teaching scuba to the handicapped, and a second class was offered through the university in 1977. Then there was a four-year break before Gatacre initiated his own scuba teaching program. Today the San Clemente resident is HSA's sole diving instructor as well as its chief promoter and record keeper, although some assistance is provided by his wife, Patricia Gatacre, past students and interested community members.
A full-time salesman for a small company's roofing product, Gatacre says he gives HSA about 30 hours of his time each week, working without a salary. He has a slight handicap, the result of a 1972 accident that temporarily paralyzed his right arm and made him feel "very alienated in terms of physical things." He remembers worrying about how people would respond to him and whether he'd be able to do things he had previously enjoyed, he said. Eventually he recovered most of the use of his arm, but by then he was hooked on the idea of helping more severely handicapped people do things they hadn't dreamed possible. And over the years since then, Gatacre has taught scuba diving to paraplegics, quadriplegics, amputees, blind people and people with cerebral palsy.
"I like to teach. I'm a physical person, and I've got a degree in biology. This combines everything. I particularly like seeing people accomplish things that other people don't think they can accomplish--things they themselves don't think they can accomplish," Gatacre said. "The ocean doesn't care if you're handicapped or not. Diving is more than just a physical challenge, it's a mental challenge."
Handicapped divers are sometimes better at scuba than able-bodied divers, he added. "You're overcoming biological responses. For instance, it's not natural to breathe underwater. So you have to be trained to overcome those feelings." Even the strongest diver can't move very fast through deep water while wearing an average of 70 pounds of scuba gear, added the HSA founder. So the ability to propel oneself forward rapidly is not necessary. Training in how to take care of oneself and one's "dive buddy" is necessary, and so is knowing how "to keep yourself floating in the water, so you can get to the surface. That's the main thing, being able to get to the surface" in an emergency, said Gatacre.
Norm Anderson, one of Gatacre's first students, "is one of the best divers I've ever seen, and he's a paraplegic," Gatacre said. When Anderson was 10, a bout of polio deprived him of his ability to walk, but it didn't deprive him of a yen for adventure. He's played wheelchair basketball for 26 years and has been diving for three years. Scuba, said Anderson, 43, "is the most adventurous sport I've ever done.
"This is a sport where you're not limited to your wheelchair, and you're not bent in half like in all the wheelchair sports," said Anderson, who came along on the recent Divers Cove outing but didn't go into the water because of a slight cold. "This shows handicapped people what they can do, one on one, with able-bodied people." Scuba has become his favorite sport, added the Orange resident, because "down there you can go wherever you want to go."
'No Dividing Lines'