A few months ago, I was on the verge of taking my first underwater adventure in the Caribbean. My name is Autumn Paulson, and I am an 18-year-old high school graduate from Bloomington. I traveled to Grand Cayman during my senior year spring break. And if you read the article about me in the April issue of Access Press, you’ll know that I have the condition of cerebral palsy, which makes me wheelchair-bound and non-verbal. In- spite of that reality, and as I am about to relate in the following story, I can dive just like any other free spirit.
More than a year ago, I was approached by Scott Stenbeck, my science teacher, and his friend, Randy Christman, the operator of Over EZ Diving, with the idea of me, a person with a disability, getting a diving certification. I secretly wondered what it would be like to experience diving, and to explore the world underwater, but I never expressed that wonder to anyone. (How very odd that the one wish that came true was the one I kept a secret to all, save myself?)
After many pool sessions and training with Randy Christman and Bill Carlson, I headed off to the Cayman Islands. Randy promised me that I would only go to a depth of ten feet once in the ocean. Once again, I surprised everyone by descending down to 30 feet, three times the initial estimate. Soon after that, I was even more shocked when Randy proposed the idea of descending down as low as 100 feet on their next adventure together. We will have to wait and see what happens with that plan!
While I was underwater, I enjoyed sitting on the sandy ocean floor, collecting shells for souvenirs, just like my scuba diving peers. I would point at the most interesting-looking thing I could spot and Randy put them in his pocket of his swimsuit for me to save and take home. Once in a while I would spot something that would only look like a shell, but discovered to be living creatures camouflaging themselves. I know that divers are not supposed to touch live ocean creatures, so I would always have Randy check out the items I spotted first. Despite this protocol, I couldn’t help the periodic spasmodic movements in my arms and legs (because of my cerebral palsy), so I would accidentally come into contact with fish and other sea creatures. Well, a diver can never be perfect!
The most memorable dive for me on this trip involved one of the thousands of unique types of fish found in ocean waters, a tarpon. A tarpon came right up to my face, leaving just inches between us. I couldn’t help myself from screaming at the huge grey fish through my full-faced mask to try and scare it away. There are questions about my ability to descend below 30 feet, since there is a better chance of confronting even larger fish than tarpons at that depth. I have been afraid of sharks since I was a little girl. Will I face the fear and merge into waters a person with a disability has never gone before? We’ll just have to wait and see.