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December 6, 2022

Communications Insights from an Adaptive Diving Buddy on International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Emily Hirsch, Account Supervisor, Marina Maher Communications - Would you jump into the ocean if you couldn’t swim? 

This isn’t the new version of “if all of your friends jump off a bridge would you follow,” rather it’s a reflection on the earned and innate trust that it takes to venture beyond your current capabilities with the support of others. For some people living with disabilities, jumping in the ocean is exactly what they’re after, that is with the support of an adaptive dive team.  

I recently spent a week with Diveheart, an organization dedicated to providing and supporting educational scuba diving programs that are open to any child, adult or veteran with a disability. For 19 years, Diveheart has provided the training, gear and environment for people with disabilities to become certified adaptive divers, as well as for others to become adaptive dive buddies. As an adaptive dive buddy, I’ve become a better diver, a better communicator and a better person.  

When you train to become a certified adaptive dive buddy, the course goes beyond book learning and practical skills, it also requires empathy training –a series of sessions where you must learn to dive without your vision, without your arms, without your legs and without any physical abilities. It only takes a moment when you are 20 feet underwater without your vision while your buddy lets go of you to learn the importance of staying in constant contact.  

Much like adaptive diving, a requisite of effective communication is staying in close contact with your audience. Before you get in the water with an adaptive diver, it’s not only etiquette but essential preparation to get to know each other, learning needs, desired outcome for the upcoming dive and what you can do to elevate the experience. As a communicator, the time spent engaging with the communities that compose your audience and learning their drivers, both positive and negative, is irreplaceable. Communications are only as successful as the connections we make. 

On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, here are five ways brands can embrace inclusivity and empathy in their communications:  

A communications plan is only as good as its adaptability 

Planning is prudent and necessary, especially when working with people with disabilities as there can be challenges you don’t anticipate. Many places aren’t ADA compliant, even those that “are” require a fair amount of foresight coupled with innovative solutions once on-site. Clearly defining roles and responsibilities creates a foundational structure from which to adjust to achieve the group’s goal, which may have changed too.Environments are constantly evolving; community needs are changing and the platforms we use to reach them are too – having an adaptable approach will help ensure you successfully reach your audience where they are and make a positive impact.  

Only offer help if you’re willing to listen 

Do NOT offer something you can’t deliver on. It’s great to shoot for the stars – you may see an opportunity to be proactive and offer – but make sure to ask questions and listen carefully. Hear and listen to who you are trying to help to ensure your support is just that – supportive, rather than taking over or acting based on assumption. Truly understanding your audience can go well beyond social listening and analytical tools.Take the time to reach out to those in the community and build meaningful relationships that involve collaborative dialogue to identify needs and find solutions. 

Elevate people to the best of their capabilities 

It is a common mistake to lump people with disabilities together. Two people in the same type of wheelchair are about as similar as two people in the same style of shoes. Everyone’s capabilities differ, even when using similar tools. Find out someone’s capabilities firsthand, their comfort level and how you can empower them to reach their highest level of independence while achieving their goal. When conducting media trainings, you can accomplish more than simply instructing someone to stick to the scripted talking points. Regardless of their role in the community - a patient, family member, care partner or HCP – identify their comfort level working with the media, learn about their experiences and work to elevate their abilities. 

Trust comes before the fall but is earned afterwards 

As humans we harbor an innate level of trust in one another and in society. When society wasn’t built to meet your needs, it requires building trust in the people you encounter. Working with people living with disabilities and their loved ones necessitates the asking of questions, you can’t learn about someone’s experience if you simply assume it’s similar to yours. Building trust requires active listening, where action requires accountability. When you take on helping someone, they take on trusting you before you’ve completed the task. Show your community you can be trusted with their personal stories and how their journeys can be elevated to help others. 

Be ready to be inspired 

In life we face a myriad of challenges, some small others nearly insurmountable. It’s a joyous moment to watch someone surpass the hurdles life has put in their way, made even more humbling and rewarding when you were able to play a small part in empowering their achievement. Brand or product messaging might be where our work meetspeople, but we must start with a people-first point of view. Once you put pen to paper, your work, fueled by ideas driven first by people, will give your messaging a better chance at truly being authentic.  

Whether you’re a certified diver or a seasoned communications professional, I challenge you to ask more questions. Find out how someone’s experience differs from your own and offer the support you can to empower their next goal. You don’t have to jump into the ocean, but you do need to be empathetic in your pursuit of connecting with others.  

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