The Underwater Adventures of a Paraplegic Scuba Diver

Elena Prous was 24 when she broke her neck in a traffic accident that left her paralyzed from the arms down. Seven years on, she's also one of the world's few paraplegic scuba divers.

by Patricia Rafael
Aug 1 2016, 3:10pm

Photo courtesy of Elena Prous

This post was originally published on Broadly Spain.

Elena Prous was nervous on the day she decided to learn scuba diving. She phoned up an instructor who lived in Tenerife, Spain, where she was planning to obtain her diploma. They had met just a month ago. "Would you like to go diving with me?" she said. Then she asked her dad: "Would like to join me?" Two cousins had offered to join her if she ever made the trip. "Will you be joining us?" she quizzed them. Every single person said yes—and so did one of Prous' female co-workers.

That was five years ago. Since then, the 31-year-old has gone diving in in warm water, cold water, and under ice in places familiar to any diving enthusiast, like Mexico, Panama, and the Red Sea. But unlike most divers, it takes a team of people to plan her trips below the surface: Prous is paralyzed from her biceps down.

At 24, Prous broke her neck in a traffic accident between the C4 and C5 vertebrae—sections of the cervical spine near the base of the neck. Her mobility is reduced to bending her arms; she cannot move the rest of her body.

"I dive because people want to dive with me," she tells Broadly. "Saying [anything] other than this... means discrediting a lot of people." Prous needs one or two people by her side to help get her wetsuit and equipment on. She also needs somebody else to help her get into the water or onto the boat, depending on the accessibility of the dive site. Most importantly, somebody has to help her in the water to equalize the pressure in her ears and sinuses. "That's the most vital part in order to dive, otherwise your eardrums would burst," she explains. "I cannot do it by myself."

Read more: 'I'll Come Back': The Woman Who Spent 32 Years on the High Seas

One of the most common ways to equalize involves closing the mouth and pinching the nose shut. Prous cannot move her fingers; if she nods to the diver accompanying her, it means that her nose needs to be covered for a while longer. While diving, Prous is effectively carried by her companion through some piping at the top of her scuba tank.

"It is true that I have enough courage to get into the water in spite of knowing that I couldn't do anything by myself," she says. "But it's also true that without the people I dive with, I wouldn't be able to do it. The point is, I've met many people willing to go diving with me, and that has allowed me to keep doing it."

Photo courtesy of Elena Prous

That includes people like her supportive first instructor in Tenerife, or another instructor who suggested that she join him on his trip to the Red Sea. For a week, they lived on a boat so narrow that her wheelchair didn't quite fit onboard. As soon as she showed up, the ship's cook, an Egyptian man named Mahmud, told her that he would make sure that she could move around freely. He had spent more than a month in bed recovering from an illness, unable to provide for himself, and sympathized with her condition. He carried her on his back when she needed to get into her cabin or get into the water from the boat.

Prous would also be unable to dive without the help of her partners at the Oceánides University Diving Club. "They're my stepping stone, because they get involved with making me go everywhere," she says.

Two years ago, she even went ice diving with them. "I mentioned it one day just by chance," she says. "I said that it would be great to dive under the snow, and they said, 'Let's do it!'"

They ended up doing it at a French ski resort so snowy that her wheelchair couldn't even move across the ground. The only option to get her to the frozen lake where the dive was planned was a snow bike used for rescue operations.

"They made me lie down, I was fastened to the snow bike, and I had the best time watching the snow-covered mountains," she laughs.

Elena talks non-stop, only pausing to ask me to bring her glass of Coke closer so she can sip on it through a straw. She says that one of the things she likes most about diving is the fact that she can't talk underwater. "I've been told to use full-face masks so I can speak and stop making signals, but I always say that if I did, I wouldn't be diving—I'd just spend my time talking!"

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Shortly after our conversation begins, I realize that her story is not about her own personal triumphs—if anything, Prous' exceptional achievement reflects a wider conversation about disability rights and people with functional diversity (the term used in Spain to denote those with disabilities). All too often, disabled people—especially disabled women—are just like everyone else. The difference is, they have to live within a society that isn't designed for them.

"I questioned myself all the time [after the accident], because I didn't understand why a capable, beautiful girl who used to work as a nurse was suddenly set apart because she couldn't move anymore," Prous says. "But I didn't set myself apart, it was society that did it.

"I came out from that tragedy thinking I was the same [person]," she adds. "But then I realized that was not the case—not because I wasn't the same, but because society doesn't give you any opportunities." She raises the example of accident insurance. "The first thing they consider paying for is a couple of legs for you, but maybe being 24 years old as I was, what they should have considered was a guarantee of a job [doing] something I could do."

We don't have to overcome anything—what I want is to live exactly like you.

Eight years after the accident, Prous is now considering the prospect of re-entering the world of work. "At first you leave everything aside a bit, because you need to find out how your body works now—how to get dressed, how to move, how to pee, or how to get into bed," she explains.

This wasn't made any easier when Prous' partner broke up with her three months after she was first admitted to hospital. "I found out over time that he had never loved me, but he was barely questioned [about his decision to leave]," she says. However, at Toledo Hospital, where she recuperated for eight months, nobody questioned why the wives of men admitted with spinal cord injuries remained with their partners.

Thanks to Prous' newly single status, her mother was expected to become her full-time carer. Even though Prous had lived on her own since she was 18, "nobody found it strange when I moved to my mom's and she had to quit her job." So as soon as Prous left hospital, she focused all her efforts on regaining her independence. She got in touch with the Foro de Vida Independiente y Diversidad (Independent Life and Diversity Forum), where she found what she was looking for: "It's not about people with functional diversity going wherever we are not allowed to, it's about us having the same right to be there as the rest of the people. So that's why we demand real equality."

Read more: How People with Disabilities Have Sex

In Prous' case, her pension, the compensation from the accident, and a government welfare program allow her to hire four assistants to help with her daily needs. She has lived in her own flat in Madrid for the last four years. "That, in my case, has allowed me to live on my own," she explains. "There's no such thing as a super-disabled woman, just as there is no such thing as a superwoman—the myth that women can do anything is bullshit.

"If you want to work, you need someone to take care of your kids, or you need to find a day care centre that opens for more hours, or you need your partner to take care of them. [My] case is the same: Disabled people have assistants and people willing to do things with us. And this is something everyone should be entitled to," she adds.

Her blog También bajo el agua (Spanish for "Also Underwater") was born of her frustration caused by a society that refuses to acknowledge the needs of disabled people. Visitors to the website are greeted by an illustration of a mermaid in a wheelchair; Prous writes about her diving trips and her thoughts on existing in a world unprepared to acknowledge people like her.

"People want positive stories, stories about overcoming. But we don't have to overcome anything—what I want is to live exactly like you," she says. Then, with a smile, she asks for another sip of Coke.

scuba diving
Disability Rights
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Elena Prous