Dr Richard Holmes is modest about most things but of one thing he is quite adamant: education can make all the difference.
Dr Holmes has been in a wheelchair for 42 years and yet he remains healthy and vital. He attributes his longevity to his healthy lifestyle and a strict fitness regimen. “Of course it was much easier for me when I was young and vain,” he laughs, “nothing like I am today!”
Competitive sports were his life and it is probably that competitiveness, and a huge dose of joie de vivre, that helped him to cope with his rugby injury in September 1968 when support for injured players such as the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Fund and Boksmart did not exist.
His fellow learners collected enough money for him to buy a small car and go to university to become a teacher. His principal helped him with his university application as he needed an additional subject for a bursary. When the Department of Education realised that he was disabled they took his parents to court as the Dept refursed to offer him a teaching post (as they thought him incapable) and all bursary recipients were expected to teach for four years to pay back the bursary. The case was settled out of court.
Richard’s wheelchair got a flat in his final year when an arrow hit it, straight from Cupid’s bow! Lydia and Richard have been married for 30 years now and share an idyllic life, complete with Bouvier dogs and the picturesque beaches of Port Elizabeth. Getting there was the hard part.
Richard applied for many teaching posts before being accepted at Sunridge Primary School, PE. He immediately realised the he would need to go back to school if he was to compete in the open job market. He burnt the candles at both ends, and in the middle, for a BA Psychology and Anthropology; BA honours Psychology; MA Psychology and a PhD in Literature and Philosophy. Along the way he joined QASA, SASHA, SACNA, and the Psychological society of SA.
There were times when he was patronised because of his wheelchair, such as when he worked as a research intern and stapled papers together for 18 months! On the other hand his application for the position of District Psychologist and was turned down because ”you climb out of a car too slowly!”
In 1983 Richard was working as an Industrial Psychologist when a lawyer called him about a case that he was working on involving a man who was claiming compensation for being rendered paraplegic. Richard did an assessment and soon realised that the claimant was not as severely injured as he had led them to believe. This has led to his involvement in thousands of forensic phychology cases.
In the course of his work he has uncovered some disturbing facts. Richard says that although the airbags in new vehicles save lives there is a tendency for the survivors to suffer from brain trauma so, whereas the number of deaths may have reduced, the number of people living with disabilities has increased.
He worked as a clinical consultant on the biggest simultaneous and instantaneous case of paraplegia in the world. A cage transporting miners to the surface ascended too fast and then slammed to a halt smashing all of the men into the top of the cage and, in a spilt second, about 79 miners were rendered paraplegic.
Richard has not let his court work interfere with his determination to motivate and assist where possible. He regularly presents papers at conferences discussing topics from sexuality to trauma counselling but continues to work at the coal-face on medico-legal assessments and providing expert evidence in our High Courts, both for the plaintiff and the defendant.
From a jock to a psychologist, it’s a long learning curve but Richard believes that all people can achieve their dreams, no matter what obstacles obstruct your wheels: “I was never an academic, but it was education that made the difference in my life.”