Scuba diving may seem an unlikely sport for people with disabilities. After all, many able-bodied swimmers would rather stay on top of the water. But for instructor Gabrielle K. Gabrielli of Tallahassee, it’s the most natural thing in the world.
“When I’m working with differently abled people, I’ve found that being in the water is freeing and healing for them,” says the founder of Life Worth Leading, an organization that teaches scuba to able-bodied people and people with disabilities. “The greatest challenge for them is getting from the boat or shore in and out of the water, but once in, it’s amazing.”
For the past five years, Gabrielle has worked with Florida State University student Ronny Ahmed, who lost the use of his legs and his right hand when he was shot on campus in 2014.
“I met Gabrielle in the ICU right after I was shot, and she had heard about my love of the outdoors from my mom and sister,” says 26-year-old Ronny. “She suggested I try scuba after my rehabilitation, so I contacted her. It has opened doors for me to have more interaction with other people and to be more active.”
Ronny says being in the water is good for him.
“It really is the only time that I don’t have any pain,” he says. “It helps with my back from sitting so much, and it helps my stomach pains go away.”
Getting ready to dive can be exhausting, Ronny admits.
“Putting on my wetsuit with all the zippers and tethers—I can’t stand up, and it’s tight-fitting—so it is really frustrating,” he says. “But once I’m in the water, everything is fine.”
Ronny says one of his favorite dives was in Key Largo.
“We swam shipwrecks and reefs, saw turtles, manta rays and sharks,” he says. “I haven’t yet seen a whale shark, but I plan to in March when we go to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta to dive with them.”
Using adaptive equipment such as webbed gloves and scooters, differently abled divers can maneuver through the water and explore in similar ways to able-bodied divers.
“Before we undertake teaching people with disabilities, we require that they receive medical clearance from their doctor,” Gabrielle says.
The training process for differently abled people usually takes more time because instruction is typically one-on-one.
Gabrielle has been active with FDOA for several years and works with Tallahassee’s SportsAbility each year. Ronny also volunteers for the three-day event.
“Diving has really helped me,” Ronny says, “and in some ways it’s opened up a whole new world.”