Named the 2011 Senior Australian of the Year and with many other awards and accolades, Professor Ron McCallum AO, recently spoke about his memoir, Born At The Right Time, at a radio for the print handicapped (1RPH) lunch at Canberra’s Ainslie Football Club. With a distinguished career as a lawyer and academic, Professor McCallum was the first blind person to be appointed as Dean at an Australian University (Sydney University). And as the Australian nomination, was appointed to the UN Monitoring Committee for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities. In Born At The Right Time Professor McCallum describes his personal and professional life, but his tale centres largely on his happiness in meeting and marrying the ‘love of my life’, Professor Mary Crock and having a wonderful family. When they met in 1984, Mary had been a junior solicitor in private practice and a judge’s associate. Later, she completed her PhD and went on to become an esteemed professor in constitutional law and migration law. Born prematurely in 1948 in Melbourne, Ron was given pure oxygen (the medical norm then for premature babies but which was later found to be too strong for the developing eye, resulting in Retrolental Fibroplasia (RLF) and sight loss). As the daughter of an ophthalmologist, Mary immediately understood what Ron’s condition was when they met. Growing up in the 1950s-1960s in Melbourne’s suburban Hampton with his parents and two brothers, Ron always had the unwavering love and support of his beloved mother. She was determined that he be treated equally with his brothers and be given every opportunity in life. In those days, very few books were available in Braille, so Ron’s mother, aunt and friends (and later, devoted university secretarial staff and other students), read material to him, including statutes, legal cases and judges’ statements for his legal studies. Over the years, Ron was able to take advantage of many forms of ever-improving technology, described in such detail that it could warrant a book on its own in how assistive technology can help people with disabilities personally and professionally. Despite the sophisticated technology, life was not without disadvantages in Ron’s life generally and in his quest to be educated. From early days of learning to write Braille, his schools included the Royal Victorian Asylum for the Blind and various Catholic schools before he gained acceptance into Melbourne and Monash law schools. He faced many challenges: having to catch buses on his own, and to navigate his way around busy railway stations en route university or work, and, as any new student knows, universities can be daunting places, but more so for someone without sight. However, he forged friendships with many good people who helped and inspired him, served as mentors and role models and became his friends. Irrespective of where he lived, studied or worked, he learned to fend for himself including with shopping and cooking, to the point where he could host his own dinner parties. Later as a father, he often took care of his children’s needs with feeding, bathing and daily walks. Born At The Right Time is very informative including its explanations of Who’s Who’s and happenings in academia and the legal world in Australia and internationally. It is not without poignancy especially with his immense sadness at the loss of his beloved mother at the very time that he and Mary were developing their relationship. Ron’s curriculum vitae is impressive, including: tutoring law students at Monash University when he graduated; completing a Master’s degree in labour law at Canada’s Queen’s University; lecturing in labour law at Monash University; taking up a professorial chair at Sydney University’s Law School; working as public servant in the federal Industrial Relations Bureau; taking a secondment at America’s Duke University in North Carolina; chairing various federal and state industrial relations inquiries; teaching (on exchange) at Canada’s York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School; serving as Dean of Sydney University’s Law School; working part time at a Sydney law firm; chairing a UN Committee to progress the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities; serving on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Ron stresses the importance of cultivating his memory and developing deep listening skills and recalls experiences in Canada when he became friends with prisoners who read to him, filling tapes with copious amounts of material, He in return, learned to listen fully and carefully to their stories, and got to know a lot about them and their lives. While he attributes his acceptance into law school to ‘dedicated teaching’ from his committed teachers, he marvels that from ‘humble beginnings’, he has had a very happy life with a loving wife and their three children. His words also remind us that people with disabilities have a right to enjoy all of the human rights and dignity that most able-bodied persons take for granted and that globally, one billion persons have a disability, many of whom live in developing countries and in poverty. He notes that the UN Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities ‘…is a clarion call to nations, provinces, regions, and we persons with disabilities to uphold our social, political and economic rights.’
Geri Bryant-Badham is a Canberra-based freelance researcher and journalist.
Geri has substantial experience in advocacy, policy and organising and managing projects, including handling budgets and finances. She has worked in various offices for a small business, a university and in the parliamentary, political, government and non-government sectors.