Text by Susan Tam
Photos by Azwan Mahzan
A one-of-a-kind experience is the best way Daniel Loh could sum up his time diving for the first time off Mabul island.
“Being underwater, I would say (the experience) was very enlightening. This kind of discovery, it is something I can’t express in words. When you witness with your own eyes, only you would know, other people cannot give you the experience,” said Loh.
What may be a regular activity for able-bodied people, was instead a rather extraordinary one for 32-year-old Loh. He has cerebral palsy. Late last month, he made his first diving trip with over 20 other differently abled divers or persons with disabilites (PWD).
He couldn’t describe the experience in one word, but decided that the diving opportunity was a once in lifetime one that wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for volunteers and organisers of the trip.
“The trip was exciting and was an opportunity for us to experience the underwater world, so the important thing was that we had fun,” he shared with us.
Loh saw turtles and a host of other fishes in the clear sea of the Sabah island and is grateful to the organisers for putting this activity together.
Despite being nervous, Loh summed up the courage to do it.
“The nervousness comes when you have to breath using your mouth not your nose, so this is like breaking tradition.
“I had difficulty doing that at the initial stages, but when I was in the sea, I manage to breath using my mouth and I am able to go a little deeper. When you dive a little deeper, you can see more things.”
Diving with PWDs is an annual event for the Society of People Support People Malaysia (PSP), and this year it was so popular that many were turned away when they expressed their interest to take part in the trip, said vice president Cherry Tung. There were limited seats on commercial flights to Tawau, affecting the number of spaces for participants.
“This year’s trip included a disabled participant from Poland and three from Guangzhou, China,” she told us when we met her at one of their training sessions in Subang Jaya.
At this five-day trip in Mabul island, the PWDs were assisted by volunteers and diving instructors. The differently abled divers were either wheelchair bond, visually impaired or made up of polio survivors.
Loh, who is also an executive secretary of orphanage Cradle Love Park in Cheras, felt that everyone could dive with the right equipment and training.
“You just pluck your courage as you go down in the water. It was a great vacation for me, I made friends with everyone,” said this Johor-born lad.
He like the others had to take swimming lessons to prepare for the trip, as well as be certified through confined water exercises held weeks before the Sabah trip.
Loh offered advice to other differently-abled people that if they wanted to go on such dive trips, safety is paramount. “I won’t advice them to go single handedly, it’s better to have volunteers and most important thing is a competent diving instructor. You have to make sure the person can really ensure a pleasant and safe trip.”
Zed Nizar Omar, the diving instructor who was volunteering to train Loh before the trip, said it was also a learning experience for instructors.
“It was challenging as we had to pay 120% attention on the PWD divers, so we were really focused on assisting them,” shared the 40-year-old.
PSP president Francine Sim told us that working with PWDs was a humbling experience.
“They inspire us over the past years we have been running this programme,” said Sim.
She said PWDs showed tenacity and that they never give up on the activities they take part in.
“For them being disabled doesn’t matter. Being with them is like a wake-up call, why do we waste our time as they keep learning and trying new things. They fight for life.”
For this trip, the group had the support of Uncle Chang Resort owner Ang Kian Chong @ Dzaqoff Ang who sponsored 50% of the cost for the disabled participants.
Volunteers who wanted to be part of this dive trip had to undergo training on how to work with PWDs on wheelchair and those who are visually impaired.
A workshop was held in May at the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre to teach able-bodied volunteers on the different techniques, sensitivities and awareness of working with PWDs.
“They were trained on how to assist the PWDs in getting into bed or using the washroom, aside from being with them underwater,” Sim said. The fee for this trip was heavily discounted at RM1,200 due to Uncle Chang’s sponsorship.
“I enjoy working with charities, and I’m always looking for opportunities to work with PWDs,” said Ang, who added that the resort had built an additional 14 disabled-friendly chalets.
For next year’s dive trip, the society intends to organise a trip outside Malaysia, perhaps in the Philippines or Indonesia.
Gianna Chan, 24, who attended the trip for the first time with her wheelchair bound boyfriend, Tan Giin Rong said it was a good experience for PWDs and their partners or friends.
Chan said the programme gave the opportunity for PWDs and able-bodied individuals to be on “equal ground”.
“No one can walk on water, as both of us will float too, so we learn how it feels like to be buoyant when diving. So we are essentially the same.”