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Adaptive Diver Profile: Cody Unser

Adaptive scuba diving is a growing sport. This growth is propelled by the dedication of highly motivated advocate/divers like Cody Unser.

A year after she became paralyzed due to Transverse Myelitis - a rare inflammation of the spinal cord thought to be caused by infections or immune system disorders - Cody took up scuba diving as a way to keep up with her active family. She was thirteen years old at the time. Now, sixteen years later, she and her mother Shelley Unser head the Cody Unser First Step Foundation and its subsidiary dive programs Cody’s Great Scuba Adventures and Operation Deep Down.
Scuba Diving in an Aquarium - © Cufsf.org
Cody Unser During a Demo Dive at the Aquarium of the Pacific. © Cufsf.org

Introducing Scuba Diving to Everyone
I first met Cody at the No Barriers Summit in Park City Utah last summer. She and her team ran a series of adaptive scuba clinics at the summit, giving people with a diverse array of disabilities the opportunity to see if diving might be right for them.

From her stylish purple wheelchair she shared her passion for the sport with the enthusiasm and clarity that could only come from someone with her level of personal experience both as a diver and a woman with a disability.

Scuba Diving May Offer Relief to People With Disabilities
Though Cody first took up diving as a hobby, she soon began to notice positive physical changes taking place under the water.While diving she felt more aware of the paralyzed parts of her body. These increased sensations lasted for a few weeks after a dive trip, but would soon fade.

The physical changes she was experiencing soon paired with her innate curiosity and drive to make a difference in the lives of other people with disabilities. She spoke with her doctors at Johns Hopkins hospital and convinced them that it was worth a scientific study.

In 2011 Cody traveled with a team of medical experts, adaptive dive professionals, and ten disabled veterans to the Cayman Islands to follow up on her idea. This pilot study found improved sensitivity and motor control in participants with paralysis and marked reduction in symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in participants living with that condition.

As in Cody’s case, these improvements faded in a few weeks time. What the study accomplished was creating a clear scientific baseline that scuba diving might offer real physical and emotional relief for people living with a variety of disabilities.
The Empowerment and Independence of Scuba Diving
Cody’s personal philosophy stresses the joy and empowerment that occur while scuba diving. For people with disabilities the world can feel limiting. Scuba diving - especially for those with physical disabilities - offers an entirely novel environment to explore on their own terms.

The weightlessness of the ocean allows us freedom from the restriction of movement we feel on land. Underwater people with disabilities and their able bodied peers are all transformed into swimmers. The differences between wheelchair users and those who can walk disappear. This, combined with the feeling of accomplishment that all divers feel upon completing their adpative scuba certification is deeply empowering for people with disabilities.

To share these positive benefits with others Cody uses her foundation to raise money to plan trips and offer certification training to as many people with disabilities as they can reach.

Currently they are fundraising for a dive trip to Florida for a group of young people with Spina Bifida and Cerebral Palsy from the Riley Children’s Foundation in Indiana. If you are interested in making a donation they have a Go Fund Me campaign.

Get Involved With Adaptive Diving
Aside from running her foundation, planning dive trips, and advocating for further medical studies of the effects of diving on people with disabilities, Cody has continued her studies both in and out of the water.

She is a PADI certified advanced open water diver, and is currently pursuing her Master’s in Public Health at George Washington University in Washington D.C. This year, she will be inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame for all that she has accomplished.

It is people like Cody Unser who advance the sport of adaptive scuba diving. She has created opportunities for dive professionals, medical researchers, and people with disabilities alike.

Her passion for diving and drive to include others in the adventure of it all are far reaching and profoundly positive. If you are interested in adaptive diving I urge you to look for opportunities to get involved and help continue to grow the positive impact that it has on the world.

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