The art of deep sea diving … in a wheelchair

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Sue Austin started using a wheelchair after an extended illness. Through the experience, she speaks of finding a tremendous new freedom. “I’d seen my life slip away and become restricted. It was like having an enormous new toy. I could whiz around and feel the wind in my face again. Just being out on the street was exhilarating.”

But even though Sue had this newfound joy and freedom, she said people’s reaction completely changed towards her. “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.”

Sue wanted to make her own stories about this experience, new narratives to reclaim her identity.

Sue started creating art works that aimed to communicate something of the joy and freedom she felt when using a wheelchair — a power chair — to negotiate the world.

“The wheelchair became an object to paint and play with. When I literally started leaving traces of my joy and freedom, it was exciting to see the interested and surprised responses from people. It seemed to open up new perspectives, and therein lay the paradigm shift.”

When Sue began to dive in 2005, she realized scuba gear extended her range of activity in just the same way as her wheelchair did, but the associations attached to scuba gear are ones of excitement and adventure, completely different to people’s responses to the wheelchair.

Sue thought, “I wonder what’ll happen if I put the two together?”