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Scuba Diving—and Breaking the Mold—with Cody Unser

Cody Unser is many things—a philanthropist, lobbyist, advocate, writer, speaker, peer mentor, scuba diving ambassador—and she also found herself paralyzed at the age of 12, due to a rare autoimmune disorder.

Instead of letting her physical limitations get in the way, Cody has fully embraced her new lifestyle and broken the mold, in many ways, paving the path for those with disabilities to follow her.

Learn more about Cody and how she Breaks the Mold:

Tell me about yourself and your story.

My name is Cody Unser and I am a beautiful, smart and confident 30-year-old woman. It took me a few years, challenging work within myself, and great role models to be able to say that. I became paralyzed when I was 12, due to a rare autoimmune disorder called Transverse Myelitis (TM).

At an early age, I found myself with half of a working body and I never thought that I could exist or even thrive in a wheelchair. With the help of my mother, Shelley Unser, I started the Cody Unser First Step Foundation to raise awareness of TM, advocate for people with disabilities, and help to improve the quality of life of kids and adults with disabilities using Adaptive Scuba Diving.

I am a philanthropist, lobbyist, advocate, writer, speaker, certified Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation peer mentor, adaptive scuba diving ambassador for the largest scuba diving agency PADI, and I hope to make an impact for people with disabilities in some way.

Tell me a bit more about the Cody Unser First Step Foundation. What inspired you to start this foundation at such a young age?

I believe that things happen for a reason, and becoming paralyzed was the worst and best day of my life. It gave me a purpose and a drive to create an organization that helps others who like me, value wheels more so than shoes. The feeling of giving back is what makes me get up in the morning.

The Cody Unser First Step Foundation includes three pillars: "Awareness" of Transverse Myelitis, "Advocacy" for people with disabilities, and "Quality of Life". Raising awareness for TM is huge—and I’m so proud of the fact that we helped to inspire not only a center at Johns Hopkins University to study TM (and also MS), but to encourage all doctors across the country to share data and crucial findings to help understand and treat these conditions better.

The Cody Unser First Step Foundation has done so much in the last 18 years, and I can’t wait to continue to help improve lives of people and kids with Transverse Myelitis, veterans living with disabilities and all other people with disabilities.

I'm fascinated by the Great Scuba Adventure. Can you tell me more about how this came to be, and how scuba diving benefits those living with different forms of paralysis?

I started scuba diving when I was 13, a year after becoming paralyzed in 1999 due to Transverse Myelitis. I started diving because my mom, dad, and older brother Al got certified before I became paralyzed. It was always in the back of my mind as something I wanted to do before I became paralyzed.

After becoming paralyzed, everything I did or thought about included the broken body I was now living in. But scuba diving took all the doubts, fears and frustration away. The ocean reminds you how small you really are, and how important it is to protect it for the future. Scuba diving gives me an experience I have not found on land, where I feel pure freedom from the gravity I feel in my wheelchair every day. That’s why I started Cody’s Great Scuba Adventures—the foundation’s quality of life program—to help other people experience this great feeling.

All of these endeavors must keep you pretty busy—what's your method for work-life balance?

I think balancing work and my social life is always a work in progress. I have times where I go so hard with work or so hard with having fun with my family and friends. The thing about being paralyzed and having an autoimmune disorder is that my body will force me to slow down and remember to take care of myself—whether I want to or not.

How do you #BreakTheMold and stray away from the conventional in your daily life?

I #BreakTheMold by breaking down barriers, both physical and ideological ones about people with disabilities! I'm paralyzed, but I'm still sexy and I can accomplish things in life.

What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?

People would be surprised to know that I had a breast reduction a few years ago and it was so crucial for my back pain. I love rocking my body and encourage all women to do the same, and having a great bra helps with this!

What advice do you have for women just starting out in their career?

My advice to women is to celebrate who they are no matter what ability they may or may not have. Be your most authentic self and never fear or doubt what you are capable of and what you want.

What quotation or saying inspires and motivates you to be yourself and #BreakTheMold?

I live by the motto: "If you can't stand up, stand out"!

Where do you hope you’ll be in five years?

I love living in the moment and cherishing the present, but in five years I hope that we have put more people with disabilities in the water on scuba, I hope to have influenced the education of OB GYN’s on the needs and wants of women with disabilities, I hope to be as happy and healthy as I can be and that I am doing something fun with my family and friends. We can't control life and what happens in the future but we can certainly control our perspective.

Finish the sentence: I #BreakTheMold by:

Living life to the fullest and encouraging others to do the same!

This post is part of our #BreakTheMold series, where we celebrate the lives and work of trailblazing women. Check out the rest of the series here.

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