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Learning to Scuba Dive Regardless of Disability Status

Born without arms, woman drives, types, and scuba dives

By Anna Madrzyk, Daily Herald Staff

Jessica Cox, 26, was born without arms. She uses her feet like hands - to drive a car (she has an unrestricted license), to type on a keyboard (25 words per minute), to pump her own gas, even to put in and remove her contact lenses. Along with those remarkably dexterous feet, she has an athlete's powerful legs and a tightrope walker's sense of balance.

One of those things she's always wanted to do is learn how to scuba dive. So Cox recently was sitting in a deck chair at the Holiday Inn Select in Naperville, wearing a pink wet suit and assembling scuba equipment with her feet before heading into the pool for a training swim.

"She's unbelievable," marveled Jim Elliott, president and founder of Diveheart, a Downers Grove-based nonprofit that teaches people with disabilities how to scuba dive and snorkel.

Cox, who lives in Arizona, came for a week of Diveheart's specialized training, which is adapted for each individual's needs. Elliott has worked with people with cerebral palsy, amputees, quadriplegics and people with visual or cognitive impairments, including autism. "It's the only sport in the world where there's no gravity," Elliott said. "You can get someone out of a wheelchair and put them in the water, and they can move in water the way they can't move on land."

Cox is already a good swimmer, so her training focused on learning to operate the equipment - such as clearing her mask - with her feet. Her buoyancy vest needed to be weighted differently to adjust for a lighter torso because she has no arms. Another challenge is diving without fins so her feet are free to control her equipment. After mastering those skills, she completed open water dives in the Kankakee quarry Diveheart uses for training. Her certification will allow her to dive anywhere she wants as long as she is accompanied by two diving buddies.

Cox is planning to dive in Hawaii this fall on a family trip given to her by producers after her appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." Elliott has also invited her to join other disabled divers on a Diveheart trip to Cozumel in December and is looking for a sponsor.


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