Let me just start by saying …
A woman named Sue Austin has just rocked my world,
challenging any notion I ever entertained about limitation.
When you can merge the words “wheelchair” and “scuba diving” in the same sentence, you know you’re in the presence of something,
Sue Austin is a performance artist based in North Devon, England, who has transformed a wheelchair from a vehicle of restraint into one of unexpected freedom.
“An extended illness had changed the way I could access the world … I’d seen my life slip away and become restricted,” Sue explained at TEDxWomen conference in December. “When I started using the wheelchair 16 years ago, it was a tremendous new freedom … I could whiz around and feel the wind in my face again. Just being out on the street was exhilarating.”
She channeled that exhilaration into Freewheeling, an initiative to expand the bounds of Disability Arts. Sue and her cohorts staged a performance exhibit, Freewheeling: An Absent Presence or a Present Absence, which garnered both praise and criticism.
“Some people may see it as vandalism,”Austin said in defense of her displays. “But it’s the thought and concept that makes it artwork.”
Fueled by recognition of her newfound artistic expression, Sue wasn’t content to keep to the concrete. She was inspired to further defy the traditional notion of disability and share the joy she feels while experiencing the world on wheels.
In 2010, she began building an underwater wheelchair.
“I realized that scuba gear extends your range of activity in just the same way that a wheelchair does,” Sue said. “But the associations attached to scuba gear are ones of excitement and adventure—completely different from people’s responses to the wheelchair. So I thought, ‘I wonder what will happen if I put the two together?’”
The culmination of her intensive work to date is called “Creating the Spectacle,” in which Sue wheels freely throughout the Red Sea near Egypt, exploring a world that few “able” bodies will ever see and daring the rest of us to embrace an entirely new vision of disability.
The result is nothing short of magical. Take a look: