Just as the Paralympics are about to get underway, artist Sue Austin has created a self-propelled underwater wheelchair that allows her to glide through the sea! The design is all part of Ms. Austin’s performance piece called “Creating the Spectacle!,” which is a series of filmed and live artistic exhibitions that feature her and her underwater exploits.
Sue Austin has been a wheelchair user since 1996, but has dedicated herself to “finding ways to understand and represent my embodied experience as a wheelchair user, opening up profound issues about methods of self-representation and the power of self-narration in challenging the nexus of power and control that created the ‘disabled’ as other.” She developed the chair with help from dive experts who installed two dive propulsion units on it as well as a bespoke fin to help with steering.
Austin says she first had the idea after learning to scuba dive in 2005. “When we started talking to people about it, engineers were saying it wouldn’t work, the wheelchair would go into a spin, it was not designed to go through water – but I was sure it would,” she told the BBC.
Austin bought an NHS wheelchair for the project and spent months with her team perfecting its buoyancy. She initially designed flotation aids, but in the end found that simple swimming floats worked better. “If you just put a thruster under the chair all the thrust is below the centre of gravity so you rotate,” she said. “It was certainly much more acrobatic than I anticipated.” She modified the heel plates so that they formed fins at the backs of her heels and redrilled the rubber straps to attach her legs to the acrylic “wings” she needed to steer the vehicle.
“I would love to create a version with hand controls – but I need my arms to be free for the performance,” added Ms Austin. The wheelchair, which has patents pending will also need additional modifications on the model as the current frame is prone to rusting!
“We’ve had Padi [Professional Association of Diving Instructors] course directors and very experienced divers saying they would pay to hire it,” she said.”The Oceanography department at the University of Plymouth, where I did a BA [bachelor of arts degree] in performing art, said it would make their courses accessible to students with disabilities.”
Sue is staging a performance with it in a swimming pool in Weymouth this week. Her “Creating the Spectacle” forms part of the Cultural Olympiad celebrations.