“An Amazing Journey”: Sue Austin, Underwater Wheelchair Ballerina

  • June 17, 2013

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Adventure. Freedom. Exhilaration. When you hear these words, do you immediately associate them with a wheelchair? For most people, the answer would be no.  Artist Sue Austin aims to challenge the associations society has between wheelchairs and their presumed restrictions by pushing the limits of what her self-styled “powerchair” can accomplish. Through performance art pieces, she emphasizes the freedom and independence assistive devices can give to their users.

In fact, Sue Austin uses a wheelchair not only to get around on a daily basis, but to scuba dive.


The image is taken underwater. On the left side, Sue Austin sits in a wheelchair equipped on the bottom with large, clear plastic fins. She stretches her arms out wide as she exhales a large stream of air bubbles. To her right sits a large coral reef, yellow brown in color.Sue Austin enjoys the sea in “Creating the Spectacle”

The concept might sound strange at first, but Sue has brought it to life with her own imagination and ingenuity. She designed her own underwater wheelchair, making use of small propulsion vehicles and clear plastic fins to navigate her underwater world.  Unsurprisingly, the process was not all smooth sailing, as Sue describes:

 “When we started talking to people about it, engineers were saying it wouldn’t work, the wheelchair would go into a spin, it was not designed to go through water — but I was sure it would…If you just put a thruster under the chair all the thrust is below the center of gravity so you rotate. It was certainly much more acrobatic than I anticipated.”

Her home grown design is the type of technology we love here at Life Labs–smart, creative technology that gives the gift of freedom to fully explore the world.

After her design came to life, Sue took her wheelchair to the ocean to film a moving video that documents her underwater exploration. With this performance art piece, called “Creating the Spectacle”, Sue forces us to challenge our preconceived notions about what a wheelchair means for its user. While Sue could dive without the aid of a wheelchair (as many people with disabilities can), the juxtaposition of the freedom of water and the supposed “restrictions” of a wheelchair force the viewer to think.  Sue perfectly performs her beautiful water ballet while sending a strong message: mobility is freedom.

Be sure to check out Sue’s other exciting projects at her website–she also dabbles in power chair painting!  We hope you’ll check out her story and also listen to her inspiring TED talkReading about Sue’s story is a great way to get inspired for the upcoming week. What a fantastic woman!


  • Donna Prather says:

    What a wonderful story- we also have a grandson with CP- just turned 18. I am going to forward this to him. Bless her heart-

  • Dolores says:

    amazing…………not only her ability to ‘see’ in her mind what she wanted and what she knew could be done, but also and maybe more importently, she didn’t listen to the negative talk or let anyone talk her out of it. She is One Amazing woman…….making me proud to be a woman!!!!!

  • David Miller says:

    I am in awe of Su Austin she is a revelation of the possibilities of life in a wheelchair. Her attitude is so optimistic and her inner strength so apparent and the whole art feel of her diving – wow!

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