William Plummer
January 16, 1995 12:00 PM

THE START OF any scuba dive is always exciting. But for the group of eight about to tumble into the warm, turquoise Caribbean sea from a 40-foot boat off Little Cayman island, it is doubly so. As members of the Handicapped Scuba Association, they shed more than just their street clothes when they enter the water: they shed their disabilities too. “It’s total freedom,” says Doug Sheridan, 43, a retired computer repairman from St. Louis who became a paraplegic after a 1974 car crash. “In everyday life there are so many obstacles—stairs, doorways too narrow for a wheelchair. This is one area where there are none.”

Freeing the handicapped from the shackles of disability has been for 14 years the mission of Jim Gatacre, 53. Disabled himself in 1972—he lost partial use of his right arm in a freak accident—Gatacre helped create a diver-training program for the disabled at the University of California, Irvine. Then in 1981 he formed the HSA, which has grown to include some 2,000 members in 30 countries.

“Diving is a normalizing thing,” says Gatacre later, sitting under a palm tree back at the dive resort on Cayman Brac. “Our divers are around other divers, drinkin’, hangin’ out—and it gives them a real sense of accomplishment too. They do it despite their disability.”

The oldest of four children, Gatacre was reared in Oak Park, Mich., outside Detroit, by his mother, Dorothy, a switchboard operator, and his stepfather, Harold, who owned a speedometer repair shop. (He never knew his biological father, who died in a German P.O.W camp.) Gatacre began snorkeling as a kid in nearby Cass Lake. “I was always diving down with my mask,” he says. “Of course, all I ever saw was mud.”

After he finished high school in 1960, Gatacre did a three-year stint in the Army—then worked as a roofer to support his new wife, Christine, and daughter Sheri, now 30 and a waitress in San Bernardino, Calif. Divorced in 1968, he married present wife Patricia Derk, 51, a magazine writer and psychic, in 1969.

Then in 1972, Gatacre—who had moved to San Francisco to attend the University of California, Berkeley—fell asleep one night on the couch after a few beers. He awoke 12 hours later to discover that his right arm, pinned under his body the whole time and deprived of blood flow, was swollen and numb. By the time doctors opened the arm to relieve pressure, the swelling had already damaged nerves in the arm, resulting in paralysis down to the fingers. With therapy, he has regained about 50 percent mobility of the arm, but, he says, “just the simple matter of opening a can of soup became incredibly frustrating.”

Gatacre was distressed at the thought that he would never be able to realize a lifelong dream to learn to scuba dive. But the following year, a friend at UC, Irvine, where Gatacre had transferred to study marine biology, mentioned he was starting a class to teach paraplegics to dive. Astonished that people with far greater disabilities than his could learn scuba, Gatacre was emboldened to become a diver himself. His first outing off Catalina Island, he recalls, “was spectacular, like flying over buildings. Diving was rehabilitative for me, physically and mentally.”

Gatacre helped teach his friend’s UCI course, but it was only offered a few times. Then in 1981, five years after graduating, Gatacre, living in San Clemente and working in roofing sales, set out to create his own program. It’s a six-week course in which disabled divers must complete 10 hours in the classroom, followed by 14 hours in the pool, a 300-yard swim and five open-water dives.

The buddy system is crucial to diving, and HSA members are rated on their ability to assist another diver: Level A divers can do anything an able-bodied diver can do—most paraplegics, with full use of their upper body, fall into this category. Level B and Level C divers need two buddies. Level C divers, including most quadriplegics, also need help operating their equipment and moving through the water.

All handicapped divers must be assisted in and out of the water. They get carried to the diving platform, where they are tumbled over the side of the boat to begin their dive. But disabled divers require no special gear. “One of the hardest things for our members to do, because of dexterity and mobility problems,” says Gatacre, “is take their mask off underwater, put it back on and clear it [in order to purge it of seawater]. But we have a variety of exercises to deal with this problem.”

To date, Gatacre has schooled more than 900 instructors in the special needs of disabled divers. “I tell the instructors,” says Gatacre, “this is the most selfish thing you’ll ever do, because you’ll get so much out of it.”

Indeed, the excitement on the dive off Little Cayman is almost palpable. It is as if the notion of disability has been left onshore. “When I’m at home, I’m the only gimp in town,” says quadriplegic diver Julie Mora Perez, 35. “But when I’m on these trips, I feel mainstream. It may sound stupid, but I feel cool.”

WILLIAM PLUMMER

TOM CUNNEFF in the Cayman Islands

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