A strange thing happens as you listen to Victor McKinney relate his remarkable life story. Niggling worries vanish as this inspirational figure’s attitude to his own terrible fate puts life into a whole new perspective.
Victor was an ambitious and active 19-year-old student when a freak accident left him paralysed from the neck down and robbed him of the dad he idolised and who was his “best friend”.
His dad was well-known 1960s Northern Ireland football international Vic McKinney from Lurgan, who was just 42 when he died in South Africa, where he started a new life after retiring from the beautiful game.
Far from harbouring any feelings of self-pity or bitterness at the cruel blow fate dealt him and his family, Victor Jnr talks instead about how “fortunate” and “lucky” he has been.
Now 42 — the same age as his dad when his life was cut short — Victor has managed to turn the terrible events of 1987 into something that has enriched his life rather than diminished it.
As well as an accomplished artist who paints with his mouth, he is also a prominent disability campaigner and respected academic in his native South Africa.
He and his new wife Emma are both in Northern Ireland to speak at a special conference on disability and education at Queen’s University, Belfast.
They also plan to spend time with relatives in Lurgan, visiting Glenavon football ground where his dad’s illustrious football career started, as well as many of the old haunts which featured in the stories of his childhood.
Turning back the clock to that fateful day in 1987, Victor says life couldn’t have been rosier for him and his dad.
“Dad and I were very close; we were like brothers and best friends,” he said.
“From I was no age he took me along to training with him and I grew up loving sport just like he did. I played football and my last match was the day before the accident when I was playing for Capetown University in a cup final and we won.
“I also loved windsurfing, cricket, baseball, tennis and golf.”
Photography was another passion and the ambitious teenager dreamt of a career working as a photographer, travelling the world taking pictures for National Geographic.
He was working late in the university dark room developing his latest batch of sports pictures when his dad picked him up to bring him home. They never got there.
In what was later described as “a freak accident” a tree hit their car, killing Vic Snr instantly and leaving his son paralysed from the neck down.
The blow shattered the world of this close-knit family, but Vic says it was his mum Margaret’s amazing strength which helped him cope in those first difficult years, grieving and adapting to life in a wheelchair.
He said: “Mum helped get me through it, she is a very strong woman. We were both devastated.
“When I woke up in hospital I knew immediately I couldn’t move. It took me a few years to come to terms with it. At first I didn’t believe it. I was a very, very fit person and I’d never been sick in my life and I remember thinking as I lay in hospital, ‘I will walk out of here, no problem’.
“It took me five or six years to really get used to the fact that I wasn’t going to move again.”
Coming to terms with his dad’s loss was equally hard but now he savours his many happy memories.
“I realised that I was very lucky to have had him in my life. Dad was a very well-loved and respected man.
“You would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t like him.
“He was very kind and very gentle and had that lovely Irish sense of humour which made him even more endearing.
“We had a great relationship and I am very fortunate to have had a dad like that. I count my blessings that I had him and he lives on with me, I talk to him all the time.”
While his rehabilitation was painfully slow, Victor found a way to move on by pouring all his efforts into helping disabled people.
Passionate involvement in township disability day centres and campaigning for better public facilities and equal rights in education for disabled people proved cathartic.
“I discovered I could make a difference and it gave me something to aim for.
“I focused initially on helping get a safe place for disabled children in the townships to go when their parents were working.
“Then I got involved in lobbying for equal rights for disabled children in education.”
Working with like-minded people from his university days, they helped bring about the introduction of an integrated national disability strategy.
But for Victor it is only the first step in what he sees as a long battle for recognition and equality of disabled people in South Africa.
He says: “We’ve made some headway but still have a long way to go.
“South Africa is not a developed country and in that sense resources are not there, and we are stilly lobbying for improvements mainly in transport and education for disabled people.
“I don’t think society takes disability seriously at all and certainly does not understand the magnitude of it. Disabled people are viewed as sexless and unable to work, so on a fundamental level are not viewed as being important enough to include — and the status quo reinforces this.”
Having completed a Masters in Disability Studies he is now working on his PHD along with his wife Emma, who shares his passion for disability rights.
The couple are very much in love: “I met Emma in the University of Capetown three years ago and it was love at first sight. I knew straightaway I wanted to be with her and luckily she felt the same.”
Also a gifted artist, he discovered an outlet for his creativity and a way of salvaging his love of photography and sport through painting with his mouth.
But it wasn’t easy and took years of perseverance to perfect: “I was very frustrated doing it and I did get fed up very easily. I used to think nothing I did was going to be good enough any more.
“It’s taken 18 years but I love it. It’s an immediate thing like photography, I would be at something like a rugby match and I would start to sketch what was in front of me. It just took off from there and while I do a lot of sport, I also like painting animals, country scenes and people.”
While he struggled for a long time to come to terms with not being able to move again, life today doesn’t stand still for Victor who confesses to “probably doing too many things”.
“I always think I haven’t done enough,” he says.
“I think to be lucky you have got to make your own luck. You’ve just got to get on with things.
“It’s easy to think about what you have lost but I feel very fortunate to have what I have.”
Typically for Victor it is with positive thoughts that he looks forward to spending time with his dad’s family in Lurgan on his first trip back to Northern Ireland since the age of eight.
“As soon as I heard the accent when we landed I got a nice, warm, feeling,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to going to Glenavon football ground and to spending time with my cousins.
“I knew my dad loved me and was proud of me.
“I’m lucky because nothing was left unsaid so I have no regrets.
“I’m 42 this month, the age my dad was when he died, so I suppose things have come full circle.”