Step forward and dive into greatness

Steven Looi Yuong Chiat

The only one stopping you from reaching great heights is yourself.

This is something Steven Looi Yuong Chiat strongly believes and that is how he became the first certified blind scuba diver in Malaysia.

“Just because I am blind, it doesn’t mean I cannot enjoy life,” says the 37-year-old who represented Malaysia in blind judo until 2016.

“Being blind is not the end of one’s life. Besides scuba diving and judo, I am an active blind tenpin bowler, tandem cyclist and I play chess regularly.”

An active swimmer, Looi, who gave up judo after he was not selected for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio Janeiro, Brazil, wanted to find a way to challenge himself even more.

So in 2013, he took up the challenge of learning scuba diving at OKU Marine Discovery in Tioman Island.

“It wasn’t easy but eventually I managed to learn the basics. It was exhilarating,” he said with immense pride.

“A year later, I was part of a group of 29 who made it into the Malaysia Book of Records for the most number of disabled participants in a scuba diving expedition.”

That was for the OKU Marine Discovery Dive MBR which was organised by the Society of People Support People Selangor and co-organised by Special People Association of Teluk Intan Perak and the Society of Independent Living For The Disabled Selangor.

It was held in the open waters of Salang Beach in Tioman Island, Pahang.

At that time, Looi had yet to earn his licence as a certified blind scuba diver.

That would come later, in 2016, a year after meeting Jim Elliott of Diveheart Foundation, a non-profit organisation whose goal is to help people with disabilities overcome any obstacles they may face.

“I met Elliott in Malaysia in 2015 and asked him if it would be possible for a blind person to earn a scuba diving licence. He told me there was no reason not to go for it,” said Looi, who began losing his eyesight when he was 14 due to retinitis pigmentosa before being declared legally blind when he was 28.

“I prepared for the dive for a year and on Sept 20, 2016, earned my certification from Uncle Chang’s Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge.

“That was one of the happiest days of my life.”

So how does a blind person scuba dive?

“Obviously, I cannot go alone,” Looi, who now works as a facilitator with Dialogue in the Dark, said with a laugh.

“I need to be accompanied by two persons – an ABD (assist buddy diver) and a dive instructor.

“The ABD must also be an advanced diver while the dive instructor is like a tour guide.

“Before getting into the water with my ABD, we need to work out how to communicate. Since we cannot talk underwater, we use sign language (or you could say touch language since I cannot see).

“I will give a set of instructions indicating the direction I want to go. My ABD then will lead me by holding on to my arm.”

Steven Looi
Since earning his certification, Looi has made it a point to go diving a least once a year.

Last year he was in Redang for the person with a disability (PWD) Marine Dive and helped build Malaysia’s first underwater wedding arch.

The artificial flowers were later removed while the arch was placed underwater for coral plantation.

In 2017, Looi went to Pulau Perhentian to plant corals.

Looi said he finds peace when he is underwater and diving is something everyone should experience.

As the saying goes: “Underwater, we are all equal.”