For Clint Mooney, diving in Grand Cayman is a reminder of his independence. The ability to freely explore a new, underwater world grounds him and brings a sense of calm.
“I often think back on this one image of diving … floating maybe two feet above the ocean floor and just looking around at all the fish and all the colourful coral. You find peace,” he said.
After losing his mobility from the chest down in a car accident, that freedom was powerful.
The buoyancy and mobility that diving offered him was a stark contrast to how he first felt trying to operate his wheelchair.
“I was in the hospital in recovery for so long that my muscles got real weak. I remember the first time being in a wheelchair and pushing it myself. I couldn’t even push across the carpet hallway. It was really tough. It took a lot out of me,” he said.
“Then to come here and dive ….”
Mooney, who is from Virginia, first came to Cayman in 2011 with the Stay-Focused programme, a charity organisation based in New York that has certified 133 divers with disabilities over the past 16 years.
The 28‑year-old initially came as a student and has since returned as a mentor.
This summer he joined three Caymanian interns in guiding the novice divers. For local students, the programme often provides their first chance to learn diving.
Valentina Bustos, 16, was one of the local interns who dived for the first time this summer. Being able to share that experience with other young people of diverse abilities was enriching for her.
“I got an opportunity to show them around the island and basically be a leader and mentor for them in a way, so it was very special,” she said.
The week-long programme taught her to try new experiences and to not fear meeting different types of people.
Fellow intern Martina Burton, 17, returned to the programme for the second time this summer. She developed a deep sense of camaraderie with the other participants and it pained her for the programme to come to an end.
Overall, however, she said the experience brought her joy.
“[It taught me] not to underestimate anyone, because anyone can do anything once they put their mind to it. In my past experiences with first-time divers who have no [physical] difficulties whatsoever, they still had a little bit of struggle. But for these guys, it went so smooth,” she said.
Intern Ashley Ebanks, 17, also returned for the second time this year. Coming back was like a reunion with friends. And to share the underwater world with those friends was something special.
“We always look at [disability] as the worst thing that could happen to you. But then getting to know these people and be a part of their lives, it shows you that despite what they were born with … they can still do anything they can put their minds to,” she said.
“It has been such a motivation for me. I can literally go out there and do whatever I put my mind to.”
Stay-Focused held four one-week-long sessions this year at the Marriott and The Ritz-Carlton in partnership with Red Sail Sports. Two programmes were for new divers and the other two were for returning divers.
The sense of friendship and independence fostered by the programme is exactly what founder Roger Muller had in mind when he started the charity. Based on programme surveys, he said the new divers report feelings of empowerment.
“The participants typically say that they feel more confident as a result of doing the programme. They are motivated to try new things,” Muller said.
That is exactly what Mooney has described from his time diving. The experience has taught him to look beyond disability.
“When you get out of the water, you’re still independent. You don’t have to worry about anything. You just keep on rolling,” he said.
“Disability, what disability?”