“I never once thought, coming into this school, that I would be working for a scuba diving company as an occupational therapist. Never once did I think I would get to travel the world and interact with so many amazing people who have so many challenges and so many experiences—and be part of something so life-changing.”
So says Jesseca Samaniego, OTD ‘21, who focused her capstone project in USAHS’ Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) program on how to help people with disabilities learn to dive. This project has turned into a consulting job with Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), plus opportunities to present at national conferences and international events.
The Diving Life
Young Jesseca grew up in Oceanside, California, where she swam competitively, played water polo, and surfed. At 15, her dad introduced her to scuba diving. “A whole new world opened up to me,” she says. “I personally felt the benefits of scuba diving—the adventure, and the peace of being underwater.” She still lives in Oceanside, about 20 minutes from USAHS’ campus in San Marcos.
“I loved diving and OT, and I thought there must be a way to connect my passion for both,” says Dr. Samaniego. During her first term at USAHS, she reached out to Dr. Maureen Johnson (“Dr. Mo”), who is known for her work with adaptive surfers and is Head of Classification for the International Surfing Association (ISA). “Dr. Mo said you can carve your own path in OT. I wouldn’t have gone this far without her pushing me and helping me.”
Dr. Johnson served as Dr. Samaniego’s mentor for the capstone project.
“It’s just absolutely amazing, what Jesseca is doing, how many people she can help. She’s changing the face of access in scuba diving.”
For her capstone project, Dr. Samaniego intended to work with adaptive divers in person—but due to the pandemic, she had to focus on gathering research. PADI connected her with adaptive scuba divers and diving instructors, whom she surveyed with the goal of identifying barriers to participation and how occupational therapy can remove them.
Barriers and Benefits
Her research consisted of interviews with dive instructors and surveys with adaptive scuba divers, including people with spinal cord injuries (paraplegics and quadriplegics), neurological disorders (traumatic brain injury, stroke, ataxia), orthopedic disorders (post-surgery, amputees, arthritis), chronic pain, and autism.
Several noted that a principal barrier is access to instructors who are trained to work with people with disabilities. Another barrier is perception. Says Dr. Samaniego, “I see the mindset in someone who might think, ‘I can never do that. I’m stuck in a wheelchair—I could never do that. I can’t get on a boat, I can’t jump into the water.’ And then you watch them jump into the water. You watch them take that leap of faith, and you see their eyes open up. A whole new world opens up to them. And they realize they can do it. And you realize you made that possible for them.”
Other benefits that participants reported included pain relief, better sleep, better range of motion, and boosted confidence and self-esteem.
“We’re giving them an opportunity to experience underwater life, to experience interacting with various sea animals and creatures—and give them that experience of being weightless, it’s the closest thing to being an astronaut.”
Dr. Samaniego presented her capstone poster at the 2021 annual conference of the Occupational Therapy Association of California (OTAC), and she is slated to present at the DEMA Show in November, an international conference hosted by the Diving Equipment & Marketing Association.
Working for PADI
Her capstone research lends more evidence to support existing adaptive diving programs, such as PADI’s. Now in her consulting work, Dr. Samaniego is recommending changes to PADI’s adaptive techniques course.
More broadly, she is using an OT lens to analyze PADI’s general training programs for both students and instructors. With PADI, as long as the diver meets all requirements and skills, they can be certified. So she’s helping analyze diving skills so that people with disabilities can complete them. For example, “if you can’t clear your mask with your hands, you might bring your head to your shoulder to accomplish this task.” Or you may find a different way to press the regulator purge button to get water out of the mouthpiece.
She explains that the prominent adaptive programs run by Handicapped SCUBA Association and Diveheart don’t certify adaptive divers, so these divers must always be accompanied by instructors or buddies. With PADI, any diver who can pass the exam becomes certified, which means they can dive anywhere without a support team and/or instructors present, just like any able-bodied scuba diver. They also may dive at any dive site throughout the world and earn advanced certifications. “They will be treated equal to any diver regardless of disability, since they have shown they can complete the necessary skills to dive,” Dr. Samaniego explains.
She says that one of PADI’s foundational pillars is people and humanity, with the goal to foster diversity and inclusion in the dive industry and support local communities. “This is the specific pillar I am helping PADI expand.”
Dr. Samaniego is currently training to be a scuba instructor. After she completes two more courses, she will be able to work one-on-one as an instructor for adaptive divers. In the meantime, she is also gaining clinical experience by working as an OT at a pediatric clinic.
“Part of me feels like I’m doing this selfishly, because the impact it’s making on someone else—and that rewarding feeling I get—lifts me up even higher,” says Dr. Samaniego. “It makes me want to push harder; it makes me want to provide more opportunities.”
She is creating a webinar about OT’s role in diving, which she plans to present to dive shops and dive instructors internationally on an upcoming tour with PADI. Her goal is to create more awareness in the diving world about occupational therapy and its expanding role, and also to inspire more occupational therapists to enter the diving field as instructors, consultants, and educators “because we are experts in task analysis.”
“I never thought my capstone project would open so many possibilities for me. And for everyone,” she says. “I’m getting more people to dive, and also growing the OT profession. But this is just in the beginning stages. I anticipate more and more throughout my career.”
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers hands-on Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) and Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) degrees. Join a collaborative cohort of peers who learn under the mentorship of expert faculty-practitioners. Practice with mock patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with patients across the lifespan. The OTD program includes a capstone project and additional coursework in practice leadership and policymaking. Residential (online coursework + in-person labs on weekdays) and Flex (online coursework + in-person labs on weekends) formats are available.
The entry-level occupational therapy master’s degree (MOT) programs at the San Marcos, California; St. Augustine and Miami, Florida; and Austin, Texas, campuses and the entry-level occupational therapy doctoral degree (OTD) programs at the San Marcos, California; St. Augustine and Miami, Florida; Austin and Dallas, Texas, campuses are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) located at 6116 Executive Boulevard, Suite 200, North Bethesda, MD 20852-4929. ACOTE’s telephone number c/o AOTA is 301-652-AOTA, and its web address is www.acoteonline.org.