Empowering Adaptive Divers

WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS, you make lemonade, as the saying goes. Such was the case for Jen Overturf. She suffered a spinal injury at her sixth thoracic vertebra from a dirt-biking accident in 2003 that left her paralyzed from the waist down. After the accident, she underwent intensive therapy, and her occupational therapist convinced her to become a scuba diver. The therapist was an avid diver and a certified buddy for adaptive divers.

Jen got her special dive certification and, after getting married, convinced her husband, James, to get certified so they could take dive trips together. I met them and Jen’s occupational therapist during a dive trip in the Cayman Islands. Since then I’ve learned about the many associations for people with disabilities who like to dive. On that trip I saw firsthand some of Jen’s experiences as an adaptive diver.


The Cayman Brac resort where we met has ground-floor rooms with accessible accommodations and barrier-free showers that allow wheelchair entry. The swimming pool was designed with a ramp to accommodate adaptive swimmers. When it comes to diving, the resort has portable ramps for the boats and often staffs the boats with enough dive guides and other staff to manually help the divers on and off. Adaptive divers do a front roll to enter the water and get back on the boat with the aid of staff and a specially designed sling. The boats have a low dive platform that helps make this possible.

Dive boat crews face challenges in maintaining privacy on the boat to not interfere with the adaptive divers’ dignity and meeting the needs of a wide range of people with disabilities. They have hosted blind divers who wear a special tablet on their arms with commonly used phrases written in Braille so they can communicate with the dive guide. One diver was missing most of both arms, so he had a device on his upper arm that allowed him to inflate and dump his BC using his chin. Divers with quadriplegia are paired with buddies who occlude their nostrils on the descent to allow them to clear their ears and serve as physical guides during the dive.

Jen’s occupational therapist shared that adaptive divers find medical and psychological benefits in the sport. It helps with cardiac function, decreases nerve pain and spasticity, and helps mental health, especially for divers with post-traumatic stress disorder. Jen agreed, adding that diving “levels the playing field for us with people without disabilities.”

Jen has logged almost 100 dives since she began and has dived in Cozumel, San Pedro Island, and Bonaire. She told me that many facilities worldwide cater to adaptive divers, but her favorite place is Cayman Brac. Despite unforeseen currents being one of her biggest challenges, Jen and James enjoy ocean diving and intend to continue as long as possible.

With the equipment and procedures that dive businesses can implement to empower adaptive divers, she knows that pursuing her favorite activity will be possible. AD


© Alert Diver — Q4 2022