Austin considers the whole process a piece of conceptual art that challenges the stigmatism wheelchair users face in their everyday lives.
Austin says, “As my art practice evolved I started exploring the way I use wheels to negotiate the world so I created a series of pieces of work where I turned the wheelchair into an object you can then paint and play with. I found the stereotypes associated with the wheelchair are so powerful that people couldn’t see it in a different way. I found those stereotypes impacted on my identity when I first started using one, although for me it was my freedom.”
Scuba gear extends your range of activity just like a wheelchair does
Austin realised that if you take the wheelchair out of its usual context it forces the viewer to think differently – the hope being that they then abandon their previously held, stereotypical perceptions of what it is to be a wheelchair user.
She says, “When I retrained to dive in 2005, I understood that scuba gear extends your range of activity just like a wheelchair does but the associations attached to scuba gear are completely different. So I wondered what would happen if I put the two together. Will the stereotypes about the wheelchair overwhelm the scuba gear or vice versa? It turned out to be vice versa in that non-disabled people were saying, ‘I want to have a go in one of those.’”
Initial funding for research and development came from the Impact Fund, an Arts Council South West grant that was intended to enable professional deaf and disabled artists move into the mainstream. Austin was then awarded one of the 29 Unlimited Commissions that were part of the Cultural Olympiad last summer. This involved various filmed and live performances including a 360° view film projected onto a flat 40ft screen in Royal Festival Hall’s Clore Ballroom for the Unlimited festival.
Austin says, “The idea was for it to look like an aquarium. It was full of fish swimming around and then, every now and again, the wheelchair would swing into sight. When the wheel chair came into view my friends said they could see people thinking, ‘what?’ and starting to chat to each other very animatedly. I went back for the last weekend and there was an enormous number of people just sitting down right across the ballroom and groups of children were running and chasing the fish and the wheelchair.”
I literally used the spray foam you use to fill in round windows to create the floats
Designing the aquatic wheelchair was a slow, iterative process. Most engineers they talked to after they received R&D funding believed it wasn’t possible to make a wheelchair that could fly through water. One issue was how they were going to incorporate a diver propulsion vehicle to propel the chair along.
The main question was where to attach the propulsion vehicle. The only convenient place to put it was under the chair but this was proving problematic. First, the propulsion vehicles were designed to be hand controlled, so it would need to be placed within reaching distance of Austin’s hands and secondly, by putting it under the seat, it would cause the wheelchair to rotate.
To solve the latter problem Austin attached two large fins or ‘hydroplanes’ which she is able to control with her feet. The team also came across the Pegasus Thruster after one was lent to the team by John Payne, the distributor in the UK. This propulsion vehicle was controlled by a lead reachable by Austin even if the propulsion vehicle was placed under the chair. In the end they attached two Pegasus Thrusters.
The other issue was buoyancy, it not being an easy task to get a bulky NHS wheelchair to float. Austin says, “I literally used the spray foam you use to fill in round windows to create various sized floats that would be roughly the size of the chair and then we also managed to access some very high density floats as well and pack them under the chair.”
Plans for developing the wheelchair are ongoing, in response to a large number of enquiries by those eager to have a go themselves. With patents pending, the aim is to commercialize the diving wheelchair in the near future. Who knows, in a few years’ time it could be a normal occurrence to see a fleet of wheelchair divers flying through the water.