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In this episode we discover how Uncle Kevin became a paraplegic, what treatment was available for him back in the fifties and how a rehabilitation program, which included basketball, changed his life forever.

Uncle Kevin Richard Coombs, OAM is an Australian wheelchair basketballer and athlete who competed at 5 Paralympics including the first Paralympic Games in 1960. He was the first Australian Aboriginal Paralympic competitor for Australia. Uncle Kevin is a Wotjobaluk Elder and our guest today on Grow Bold with Disability.

Duration: 28 minutes
Release date: 10 November 2020
Produced by: Black Me Out Productions

Growing Bold with Disability and the ATSI Community

PETE AND TRISTRAM: Welcome to the Grow Bold with Disability podcast brought to you by Feros Care, a podcast dedicated to smashing stereotypes and talking about the things people with disability care about most. To help us live bolder, healthier, better connected lives. I'm journalist Pete Timbs and I'm Tristram Peters. I work for Disability Service Directory, Clickability, and am a wheelchair user living with spinal muscular atrophy. 

PETE: Today’s episode of Grow Bold with Disability is ‘Growing Bold and Disability within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and our guest is Wotjobaluk Elder champion wheelchair basketball player and Australia's first Indigenous Paralympian, Kevin Coombes OAM.

PETE: In this episode we discover how Kevin became a paraplegic, what treatment was available for him back in the fifties and how a rehabilitation program, which included basketball, changed his life forever. And for our regular listeners you’ll notice that Tristram isn't with us today, but he will be joining us again in our next episode.

PETE: Kevin, welcome to Grow Bold with Disability.

KEVIN: Thanks very much.

PETE: Mate, let's start way back in 1953 when you were left a paraplegic after being accidentally shot in the back while out hunting with some cousins. Tell us about that incident.

KEVIN: I was 12. My other cousin, he was fourteen. And there were two likes blokes tagging along behind us. They were both nine-year olds. Anyway, we're walking through the floodwaters of the 1953 floods, they head up up in New South Wales, Right? We're all come from Balranald, which is about 60 miles across the border from Swan Hill up north. And we’d go shooting rabbits and hang them up and the rabbitoh would come and pick them up the next day. It's one way of making a few dollars, you know. And we decided to sit down and had a bit of a rest when we come to one of these little islands and we said, “oh, we should go that way” and I said “ no, no, go this way.” So, this little bloke, he was only nine, he has come along and started playing with the gun, my gun. And I heard it go click. And I said to myself “I think I left a bullet in that.”. And he put it out there and he pulled the trigger. Sure enough, I did leave a bullet in it and it hit me in the back. It came out just between the ribs on my left side so just missed my heart. I was very lucky to be alive really.

PETE: So, what was the immediate reaction? What happened? They had to obviously get you to the hospital. Did the ambulance come to you? Did they have to carry you back out? What happened?

KEVIN: We're out in the bush, something like 30 miles out of town. And my uncle was clearing the land out there. They were doing a big irrigation thing and they said, “well, if you can clear the land, you can keep the wood.” He had a contract with the hospital up there and he made a lot of money, my uncle. And we're out there helping him as kids, you know, school holidays and stuff like that. An old uncle of mine, he threw me in the back of the car. After I was shot, I was dozing in and out of consciousness. As I said, there was a lot of gates to get to the highway. There was something like 12 gates.

PETE: Wow.

KEVIN: He didn't bother opening the gates. He had an old Vauxhall which the doors used to open from the front, you know they opened backwards.

PETE: Oh, yeah, The suicide doors. Yeah.

KEVIN: He used to polish it every day and when we pull up to get on the highway lights were hanging off it, the bumper was all ripped. He ended up rushing me to the hospital. Then they didn't know what blood group I was. Sure enough I was my uncle's blood group. So, they sorted that out, then got me to hospital and I had the operation, which was at night. So, I was shot in the afternoon then taken from Balranald to Swan Hill and operated on that night.

PETE: So, what was the diagnosis from the doctors after they did remove the bullet?

KEVIN: Well, I knew I was a paraplegic, but I didn't know too much about paraplegia in those day. If you had a spinal injury back then you’d live for only about five weeks.

PETE: Wow.

KEVIN: Yeah. And here I am mate 60 odd years later.

PETE: So, you ended up in Swan Hill. What treatment was available? Did they do a lot of experiments on you? Because, as you say, you know, it was all pretty new back then.

KEVIN: Oh pretty new, it was really terrible. They’d wash me in the morning, and I would be lying in my own poo and urine and stuff like that. And I had 24 stitches in my stomach. And for me to pass urine the doctor used to do hand stands on my stomach to express the urine out of me because they didn’t have catheters and stuff like that. It was pretty rugged.

PETE: There was other complications too. I did read that you developed bed sores and were forced to spend a year lying on your stomach to recover.

KEVIN: That’s right. Because as I said they’d always wash me in the morning. I’d be lying in my own excrement and urine for the day and that night. And in the morning, they’d give me a bath. Anyway, the reason why they sent me down to Melbourne because that looks as though with the bedsore it was going to go get into the bloodstream and kill me. So, you know, blood poisoning and stuff like that. That's why they sent me to Melbourne. I didn't see another black face for 2.5 years. And for a little, 12-year-old kid coming from the country, who was heavily involved with his family and that, it was pretty hard.

PETE: So why didn't you see your family for 2.5 years? Just too hard for them to get down to you and work and so forth.

KEVIN: Well, there wasn't a lot of work around those days, and there wasn’t any dole. My father was a woodcutter plus a drover. So, he's away all the time, and, uh, it's pretty hard and as I said, jobs were hard to come by. There wasn't any Aboriginal organizations back in the early fifties. Nowadays they have Aboriginal organizations and those organizations would help if I got hurt today, you know?

PETE: Well the concept of disability is quite foreign for the aboriginal communities. There's no real sort of word for disability is there in the aboriginal Torres Strait Islander language?


PETE: So, can you tell me, how do indigenous people view disability?

KEVIN: Well, I was very fortunate in 81. I was in the international year for the disabled in 1981. The great bloke by the name of Charlie Perkins said there is a bloke down in Melbourne who can talk a bit so he wanted me to be on this national committee. So, I was on that national committee, and that's what the committee was fighting for the Aboriginals. They knew that I got around in a wheelchair, but they didn’t see me as disabled because I could work, I could do whatever I wanted to do. I used to travel all over Australia by myself. I was working with aboriginal hostels for about 19 years. They saw me as a bloke who gets around in a wheelchair but is not disabled.

And that is what the National deal was supposed to be like – to be like the Aboriginal that looked at you and saw that you were disabled in the sense that you got around in a wheelchair but that you could do just about anything that you wanted to do.

PETE: Well there's one thing that you are pretty damn good and that's basketball. So tell us, you were introduced to basketball as part of your rehabilitation. What drew you to basketball?

KEVIN: Well, it's part of the rehab at the Austin hospital when we were playing out there. Because there wasn't any any place I could go to in Melbourne, I didn't know anyone. There wasn’t hostels around in those days. I was stuck in hospital for so long I’d go over there and practice after their program was finished. We’d be out there, you know, with no shirt on and trying to attract some nurses because of our build and stuff like that. And that's how we got into basketball. And then they had the Australian championships here in Melbourne in 1960 and myself and a bloke by the name of Bruno Moretti who is still a mate of mine. I still ring him up every now and then to see how he is going. He's a little bit younger than me, but he was a good ball player. We were selected in the national team to go to Rome in 1960. I always say that I took him was along as my interpreter.

PETE: Well Bruno Moretti would be helpful in Italy, wouldn't he? So that was the very first Paralympic Games, as you say in Rome, 1960. What was the very first Paralympic Games like?

KEVIN: A lot different to what it is today. It was very quiet. It was normally after the Olympic Games, and I think it still is. But, you know, since the corporates got involved, Channel 7 and those people who got involved – it has turned into some program now. I always say it’s a big family and I'm proud to be part of that family.

PETE: Yeah, Nice. Now, you were the only aboriginal person representing Australia at those games. How were you accepted by your teammates?

KEVIN: Pretty good. They sort of looked after me. There was one case, these Zimbabwean people were at the bar at the games. I think it was in 1968 because I missed 64 because I discovered women. In 64 I was chasing girls.

PETE: Fair enough.

KEVIN: IN 68 they didn’t have the Games in Mexico because of the high altitude, they decided to have it in Israel.

PETE: That's right. Tel Aviv.

KEVIN: Yeah. We went there, and we're in this bar one night and we my mates were having coffee and I had a beer, and then this Zimbabwean looked at me and said, Well, are they keeping the bar open for niggers, are they? I didn’t want a punch on there, so I reported him to my team manager who' a terrific fellow from Sydney. He's passed on now. Kevin Betts his name was. He was the manager of our team. He said point him out tomorrow morning. And this bloke must have had a big night on the grog because he was bright red the next day. And I said, “there he is there”, and I pointed to him. Kevin Betts went and grabbed him by the front of the shirt, lifted him up on his feet, and he was gonna punch him. He said, “Don't ever speak to my one of my boys like that ever again.” You know, I said “Good on you”. I gotta be fair that the Zimbabwe fellow, from then on he couldn't do enough for me and he was very friendly towards me and that was fine.

PETE: So, after those first games in sixties, you came back as you said in 64 as you discovered women as well. I'm sure you discovered them just before that though. Now you also went out into the big bad world and had to fend for yourself. So, you are a young guy, wheelchair bound, aboriginal man looking for work in the sixties. How was that?

KEVIN: Pretty hard. One of my mates, a big Yugoslav fella who was in a wheelchair himself he got me my first job. I worked with his company, his mates company for 12 months and then they moved way out to Spring Vale and I thought I can't drive over there and back every day, because I was just paying for petrol to get there. So I decided to resign from that. The people that were looking after us, they said he can talk a little bit so I got a job as a Sales Rep on the phones you know? Selling stuff like printers' inks and anything to do with printing I was the man to take because I could sell you a machine, or could tell you anything to do with printing. I did that for 15 years, but all up I was in the work workforce for 25 years. No 39 years actually. I was in the government for 25 years. That 39 years the rest was at the college where I worked. And my mates, there are still 4 or five blokes, we catch up a couple of times a year and it's great to be part of that, too.

PETE: As you say you have had a very long working career, but you never actually left basketball. You came in and out, you went as we were just talking about to the 68 Paralympics in Israel, in Tel Aviv. What was it about basketball that kept drawing you back to wanna play?

KEVIN: Well, I as I said that the I wanted to travel and see the world, and that's one of the ways that I did. I went to America a couple of times to play over there. I went to England a couple of times to play over there. All up I’ve been to American a couple of times and also to Europe and England and Germany. I tell you what, there's nothing better than sitting in a boat, travelling down the Rhine, sipping a nice white wine.

PETE: A nice Rhine Riesling. You got that right. Now among some of your amazing achievements you captained the basketball team at the 1972 Paralympics and then you captained the Australian team in the 74 Commonwealth Games. There are regional and domestic championships. You retired after your fifth Paralympics in 84. What's your favourite memory looking back? What's your greatest achievement do you think?

KEVIN: One of the things that come my way was I got the order of Australia back in 81 because of my contribution to disabled sport and to aboriginal welfare in Victoria. Because I worked for human services and health down here for 25 years of that 39 years you know. So, it was a great career. With basketball it opened a lot of doors for me. I became well known. Like Andrew Gaze, for instance, he played in 5 Olympics. I played in five Paralympics, so I had a great career. It was just a marvellous thing to be part of then, Basketball Australia. I'm a Hall of Famer. That was back when John Howard was the the prime minister. I was going through a really bad time with health and I wanted one of my youngest girls to go up and get my award for the Basketball Hall of Fame. And she said “Dad, I want you to go because you are the person that deserves this not me.” Anyway, she said you could do it, so I end up doing it and I was very glad she made me do it because it was a great night and I was inducted with a few other people like Rachel Sporn, you might remember her. She played for Australia. She was inducted on the same night, and a few other people. But it’s been a great career, to be part of the Paralympic family.

PETE: You would have seen a lot of changes over the time too because, as you said, you were an advocate all the way back in the sixties, helping found the Para Vic Sports, they even named part of it after you now,. What's been some of the biggest changes you've seen with disability and sport being accepted now compared to what it was back then.

KEVIN: Well there’s a big difference nowadays. I can recall we used to go outside and shake tins outside the big VfL Games, you know, outside the gates to help the boys go to Rome and help the boys to get out of here. We’d have to go begging really. Not the case anymore. Because a lot of these people around these days just turn up to training and that’s it. Everything is paid for. It's all about progression. It's very pleasing to see that when the Corporates got involved and Channel Seven got involved in showing the Paralympics, I was never so proud of all my life when when I was involved in the organizing committee in 2000 or SOCOG and the Paralympics in Sydney. So, I was up there every couple of weeks and and to see in the first game we played. I think we played Britain wheelchair basketball. And there was something like 22,000 people at the game. Oh, yeah, just unbelievable.

PETE: Fantastic.

KEVIN: And I was sitting in the box because I carried the torch down here in Melbourne, carried the torch inside the stadium. I was one of the six athletes that carried the bar. You saw inside the stadium there’s 100,000 people in Sydney that night. Just straight after me up there, yep, it's still there. They bought me up and what happened, Kevin Knight, who was the Olympic minister at the time, he said. He said, “I'm here for two weeks, Kevin, just have a look around your street. H said if you wanted anything done to it you better do it now because I'll be out of here in two weeks' time.” I said, “right o mate.” It was a great thing that because if I could just tell you this little story. The Minister rang me and said,” Can you come up on Tuesday?” I said “Yeah, yeah.” He said I’ll have someone pick you up at the airport, take you to Parliament house. So, I did that. And I get in this room and there is Shane Ghoul, Murray Rose, he has passed on of course, Dawn Fraser, Herb Elliott and a few others that were there. And all of them had streets named after them too. Marjorie Jackson was another one who ended up being the governor of South Australia and a terrific person. And I said, I'll just watch Dawn because I know Dawn, I’ll follow what she says. But then they were doing it in alphabetical order, weren’t they? So, C comes before F so I was first cab off the rank. If you can imagine with all the TV networks were there. You get all these cameras going off in your face and people asking you questions, and you are trying to talk sense, you know, sound smart. It was very over whelming really. It made me nervous. It was the first thing I look back at and have bit of a chuckle because I’ve seen Dawn since and I always say it was a wonderful night, that day when they named streets after us in Sydney.

PETE: Amazing. What do you think of this new generation of, well they've been around a little bit now, the new generation of the Paralympians and the sporting heroes like your Kurt Fernley’s or your Dylan Alcott’s. They're doing amazing things for disability in sport.

KEVIN: I've got the utmost respect for Kurt because I've seen what he did. I remember seeing him as a 10-year-old and I thought to myself, you know, when they had junior championships, and I’d rock up and see what new talent was coming. And I thought to myself, this bloke is gonna be a superstar. And it turned out that I was right.

PETE: Now we're almost done. Our podcast as you probably know, is called Grow Bold with Disability. Now we always ask one last question to our guests. And that is what does growing bold mean to you?

KEVIN: Growing bold? I've always been very confident in what I do. I’ve always been pretty bold and not backwards about coming forward. If I have something to say I will. If I see something that is out of place or some people doing the wrong thing I'll tell them. Ah, so I suppose that's being bold. But I don't wanna be intrusive on anyone, but I think people should respect other people and not all people are the same.

PETE: Fantastic. Yeah. Nice. Now, Kev, thanks so much for joining us here today on Grow Bowl with Disability podcast is brought to you by Feros Care and our listeners can find out more about Kevin in the links provided in today's episode show notes. Mate that was a fantastic talk. Thank you so much for joining us today here on Grow Bold with disability.

KEVIN: You're welcome mate. Thanks for thinking of me and good luck to you for your program.

PETE: This podcast is brought to you by Feros Care, an NDIS partner delivering local area coordination services in Queensland, South Australia, and the Australia Capital Territory. Feros Care is a people care organization committed to helping people leave bolder lives. We call it growing bold and for over 30 years Feros has been making it real for both older Australians and those living with disability. To find out more head to

The content and views discussed in this podcast series are those of the individuals involved. They are not necessarily condoned by, or, are the views of Feros Care or its employees. 

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Uncle Kevin Coombs