What’s faster than a diver, nimble as an acrobat, and taking the cultural and sporting worlds by storm this summer? Live arts correspondent Bella Todd chats to Sue Austin, creator of the world’s first underwater wheelchair...
They’re some of the most eye-catching images you’ll ever see – a woman powering across a swimming pool or sea bed in an NHS wheelchair, bubbles streaming to the surface and long hair flowing out behind. This is Sue Austin, a British multimedia disabled artist who invented the jet-propelled wheelchair in a spirit of physical freedom and artistic adventure, and will be performing on it as part of this summer’s enormous celebration of sport and the arts. Audiences for these unique ‘Creating the Spectacle’ shows will be taught how to use diving equipment before sinking down to watch from submerged seating. We caught up with Sue following her second trip to Egypt, where she’s been preparing for the performances by riding her wheelchair through the fish-filled azure waters of the Red Sea.
What gave you the idea for an underwater wheelchair?
“I became unwell in ’94 and started using a wheelchair in ’96. When I trained as a disabled diver, I realized there was a link – scuba gear just extends your range of activity, like the wheelchair does, but the associations attached to it are ones of excitement, adventure and something tropical rather than tragedy, loss and limitation. So I wondered what would happen if I put the two together. I wanted to create positive associations with the NHS wheelchair, so that if somebody else needed to use one they had this adventurous narrative to relate to.”
Has it been a big technical challenge?
“Once I started talking to engineers I kept being told it wasn’t possible. That was almost the best thing anyone could say to me because it gave me a challenge. I worked out that I needed hydroplanes on the footplates to stabilise the wheelchair and steer me through the water, and dive propulsion vehicles attached to the underside. There are so many people without whom the project couldn’t have happened.”
'I can loop-the-loop. I can do amazing spirals. I can even fly along upside down'
What moves can you pull in your wheelchair?
“It goes far beyond anything I could have imagined. I can loop-the-loop. I can do amazing spirals using the buoyancy control device. People have likened it to underwater ballet. I can even fly along upside down and do other acrobatic maneuvers. That’s the other thing – other divers can’t keep up with me. People assume I’ll be slower than them because I’m disabled, but I’ve got two motors! Our videographer, Norman Lomax, an international award-winning photographer, was absolutely exhausted at the end of a week of filming in Egypt.”
Is this a case of ‘pimp my wheelchair’?
“It is, but it’s not my favourite expression. I’ve been called ‘the mermaid in her pimped wheelchair’, because my hair is really long and floats out behind. We’re trying to create a new myth. The only obvious scuba gear is the respirator I’ve got in my mouth – I dive in a summer dress. The lovely thing is, non-disabled people say, ‘I want one of these, I want a go!’ It’s moved beyond the wheelchair. People say: if you can do that, I can do anything.”
How does it feel to ride?
“When everything’s perfectly balanced, it’s an absolutely ecstatic experience, very visceral and hard to put into words. Now I wouldn’t want to dive without my wheelchair. The grace of the movement! Yes, it’s quite addictive. In March, I was pretty much hypothermic from staying in the water so long. It’s like transcending into another dimension."
Have you always had a spirit for adventure, or has it been piqued by your experience of disability?
“I call my wheelchair ‘portal’, because it’s pushed me through into a new level of awareness. For me it’s about finding creative solutions to barriers. I’ve become a completely different person. Does it give me a heightened sense of physicality? It does. Because I’m not wearing a mask, I can’t see very clearly. That heightens the feeling of the water on my skin, the way the chair moves through space. It feels like the wheelchair becomes an extension of me. I become more.”
Do you have plans to create more underwater wheelchairs for public use?
“We have patents pending on the design and we’d love to find a sponsor to help us develop the manufacturing side of the project and franchise models out to dive centres. The profits could then be ploughed into creating a wheelchair with a full face mask and a joystick. There’s an amazing Olympic sailor called Keith Harris who’s paralysed and sails his boat with his tongue. When he saw my footage he said, ‘I thought I was mad but this takes the biscuit’.”
Tell us about riding your wheelchair in the Red Sea at Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt…
“It was incredible – the intense light shining down through the water, the beautiful coral, the fish floating in the sand. I passed through a coral incline and had this sudden realisation: I could never have imagined this in my wildest dreams! At one point I saw two divers finning along five metres below us, putting both index fingers and thumbs together to say, ‘That’s amazing.’ When we bumped into them a few days later they told us no one had believed what they’d seen! We’re making the NHS wheelchair valuable, visible and iconic. Someone said to me, ‘Now when I see someone in a wheelchair, I won’t think of what they can’t do, I’ll be imagining what they possibly can’.
‘Creating the Spectacle’, a series of live and filmed performances of the underwater wheelchair, will take place in various locations from June 27 throughout the summer. For full details, click here.