A blind man has conquered his disability to plunge into the underwater world of scuba diving.
Robert Ainsley-Raffel was born blind but that hasn’t stopped the have-a-go Geordie making a splash with the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC).
They have helped the 25-year-old from Hexham complete his training in a swimming pool with flying colours and now Robert is looking forward to his first open water dives and passing his Ocean Diver qualification.
Not that Robert, who lives with his parents on a remote farm in between Corbridge and Hexham, Northumberland, has ever let his disability stop him tackling a challenge.
Remarkably, he was educated at mainstream schools and attended agricultural college, where he obtained a national diploma as a land-based technician.
But it’s passing his dive theory with a 100 per cent pass mark and completing his confined water dives in a swimming pool, a necessary part of the Ocean Diver qualification, that has given Robert the biggest thrill.
He said: “I haven’t got a problem being blind – it’s other people that aren’t prepared to step outside the box and find a way around problems that I have the biggest trouble working with.
“That certainly wasn’t the case with the British Sub-Aqua Club’s (BSAC) Regional Coach Dave Lucas. Right from the start he was prepared to give it a go and train me.
“Dave put me onto Cormeton, a BSAC school. I spoke to them and they actually got Dave involved with my training.”
“Dave has been fantastic. Instead of putting up barriers he took the attitude that we had to find a way around problems instead of just giving up and saying it can‘t be done.
“We even used a white stick as a guide while diving in the pool, it stopped me banging my head!
“The Instructors from Cormeton and the Tegional Coaching team taught me the theory side of things and I passed the exam with a 100 per cent pass mark. The pool sessions were magic and, although I might have taken a bit longer to get things worked out, I had no trouble getting everything sorted.”
Mary Tetley, the Chief Executive of BSAC, is hugely impressed with Robert’s can-do attitude.
She said: “Robert is a remarkable individual who is an inspiration to us all.
“We are absolutely delighted that we are helping him achieve his ambition of becoming a qualified Ocean Diver.”
Robert says he gets frustrated at the lack of work opportunities available to him as a blind person – but he’s hoping to qualify as a plumber.
He has already passed the first two sections of a City and Guilds plumbing course at college and in his spare time he trains and races a greyhound he, tongue in cheek, named Bright Eyes.
But he says his achievements don’t mean anything to him as he’s not a stereotypical blind person.
He said: “I was born blind. Basically I didn’t have any retinas in my eyes so that was that. Nowadays, things have moved on and if I was born today they might have been able to do something.
“However, all the nerves and stuff in my eyes have, basically, been absorbed back into my body so there’s no hope now. It really doesn’t bother me being blind anyway.
According to BSAC Regional Coach Dave Lucas, teaching Robert has been a brilliant experience.
He said: “Cormeton, a BSAC school, agreed to help Rob and take him through his Ocean Diver. I was asked to go along and work with the schools’ instructors to get Rob through his qualification.
“I did lots of Rob’s pool training with him which was challenging and fun. The traditional methods of demonstration obviously have to be adapted for a blind diver.
“The solution was often a good briefing followed by a session where Rob was moved into the required positions like a life-sized action man until he realised what was required.”
“He has successfully achieved all of his pool training including forward roll entries into the water! Training Rob has always been challenging, fun and rewarding.
“Everyone involved has learnt so much, luckily Rob is really gifted and he picks things up quickly and is eager to learn. He has a fantastic sense of humour and has to be admired for his courage in tackling such a sport considering his lack of any sight. He’s a real star!”
Robert added “I’m happiest diving and I can’t wait to finish my Ocean Diver certificate.
“The British Sub-Aqua Club and especially Dave Lucas have been terrific. It’s just magic when people are prepared to work around a little problem, such as blindness, to come up with a solution.
“I will never be put off by a challenge and don’t see why I can’t try anything I want to. I know someone will always bang on about health and safety but sometimes you just have to think outside the box and come up with a solution.”
To find out more about diving in your area, go to www.bsac.com or call free on 0500 947 202.
About the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC):
BSAC trains and represents 35,000 active scuba divers and snorkellers. It is the UK National Governing Body and official voice of scuba and snorkelling, working with organisations like the Health and Safety Executive, the RNLI, Marine Coastguard Association (MCA), Marine Conservation Society, HM Treasury’s Receiver of Wrecks, DEFRA and other diving organisations.
BSAC is the world’s largest diving club and has 1,000+ sociable, family-based local branches and more than 120 diving centres spread across the country and worldwide. From beginner to expert, BSAC provides extensive diver training and the resources and back-up divers need to keep skills sharp and to help them enjoy diving safely. It welcomes membership of divers trained by all other agencies.