Deep sea diving … in a wheelchair? Artist Sue Austin takes her wheels underwater to combat limiting views of disability

After a battle with illness damaged her ability to walk, artist Sue Austin started using a wheelchair. In a talk at TEDxWomen, she describes how beginning to use a wheelchair — something she found exciting and freeing — inspired people she knew to treat her differently:

"Even though I had this new-found joy and freedom," she says in her talk, “people’s reaction completely changed towards me. It was as if they couldn’t see me anymore, as if an invisibility cloak had descended.

"They seemed to see me in terms of their assumptions of what it must be like to be in a wheelchair.

"When I asked people their associations with the wheelchair, they used words like ‘limitation,’ ‘fear,’ ‘pity’ and ‘restriction.’ I realized I’d internalized these responses and it had changed who I was on a core level. A part of me had become alienated from myself. I was seeing myself not from my perspective, but vividly and continuously from the perspective of other people’s responses to me.

"As a result, I knew I needed to make my own stories about this experience, new narratives to reclaim my identity."

Sue began to factor her wheelchair into her art, hoping to encourage viewers to reconsider the way they look at disability — to show that a wheelchair isn’t a punishment, but an opportunity to experience the world in a different way.

One way she did this was by working with a team to create a self-propelled wheelchair that works underwater, allowing Sue to scuba without leaving her chair.

I realized that scuba gear extends your range of activity in just the same way that a wheelchair does,” she says in her talk, “but the associations attached to scuba gear are ones of excitement and adventure — completely different to people’s responses to the wheelchair. So I thought, ‘I wonder what will happen if I put the two together?’

At first, the goal seemed impossible: “When we started talking to people about it, engineers were saying it wouldn’t work, the wheelchair would go into a spin, it was not designed to go through water — but I was sure it would,” Austin told the BBC. But things worked out, and the results are quite spectacular. “If you just put a thruster under the chair all the thrust is below the center of gravity so you rotate,” she said. “It was certainly much more acrobatic than I anticipated.”

Watch Sue’s entire talk below, and see more of her art at her website.

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