Originally published @ Scuba Scoop 28 December 2011
A recent Sunday in Long Beach, Calif., found 53-year-old Jim Elliott in one of his favorite places in the world — under water.
Elliott performed a scuba diving demonstration for onlookers at Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific, where he received the Glenn McIntyre Heritage Award for his work helping disabled children and adults through scuba therapy.
Yes, scuba therapy.
Scuba’s not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of rehabilitation. Music, art and even other water activities are more common tools for aiding physical and cognitive development. But in 2001, Elliott left his job as an advertising executive at the Tribune Co. and started Diveheart, a nonprofit foundation that focuses on scuba therapy.
Based in Downers Grove, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, Elliott and his team of volunteers work with people as young as eight years old who have polio, autism, brain injuries, paraplegia and amputated limbs.
When he’s working with new divers — some of whom have never even been in water — Elliott starts by outfitting them in full scuba gear, getting them acclimated to the equipment and explaining the concept of buoyancy and how their bodies will feel in such a different, weightless, environment. He and his volunteers demonstrate basic techniques for being underwater and guide students as they get used to having their heads submerged while using breathing apparatus. Depending on their comfort level, new divers can explore the deeper ends of the pool and swim around independently, with teachers following them. Elliott says many of his students feel comfortable during the first lesson.
“We’ve had people say ‘On land, I feel like I’m in a cage, but when I’m underwater, I’m free,'” he says.
In addition to psychological benefits, scuba provides physical therapy by improving students’ circulation and allowing oxygen to reach more parts of the body.
“Being underwater, you’re in a weightless environment, so people who can’t stand