Featured Person: Disability Advocacy in Australia with Prof. Ron McCallum

Updated: Apr 13

Prof. Ron McCallum AO [Order of Australia] was the foundation Blake Dawson Waldron Professor in Industrial Law in the University of Sydney Law School. He took up this position in January 1993 and retired from this position on 30 September 2007. This Blake Dawson Waldron professorship was the first full professorship in industrial law at any Australian university. Ron is the first totally blind person to have been appointed to a full professorship in any field at any university in Australia or New Zealand. Ron McCallum was employed on a fixed-term contract as a Professor of Labour Law in Sydney Law School from 1 February 2008 until 31 December 2010. In January 2011, he was appointed to an Emeritus Professorship in Sydney Law School.

Below is our interview with the illustrious Prof. Ron McCallum (abbreviated as RM hereinafter):

1. Tell us about your recent book, “Born at the Right Time”. What inspired you to write a memoir and what messages did you want to deliver to the world?

RM: I titled my memoir “Born At The right time” because mine has been a fortunate life. Not only was I born in a developed nation, but of greater importance, I was young enough to take advantage of the huge advances in computer-based adaptive technology which bloomed into flower in the late 1980’s. Now I can email, download material from the internet, pay bills via apps, obtain directions, and make use of clicking traffic lights and ATM bank machines. Never before in the history of have have we blinded, had these capabilities been available to us. Of equal importance, I was born at the right time to meet and to fall in love with my wife Mary Crock. In part, the memoir is a love story of our entwined lives as parents, as lovers and as university law professors.

2. You once responded during an interview that “blind people have done better at the welfare trough in Australia than many other groups. From the age of 16, I got a blind pension. We've had pensions many other groups don't have.” Can you elaborate on what kind of pensions blind people have had that other groups don’t have? And can you also share with us what the welfare system is like for people with disabilities in Australia?

RM: From when I turned sixteen, I received a blind pension which is not means tested at all. Therefore, even though as a law professor I had a good income, I still received this pension. It compensates for things which I can’t do myself. Other groups like my deaf or hard of hearing sisters and brothers do not receive this type of assistance.

Unlike the United States (and I lived in North Carolina in 1982 for six months), the Australian welfare system has a stronger safety net.

In 2013, the Australian Government, in cooperation with our State and Territory Governments, established the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). This scheme enables persons with permanent disabilities to obtain individualized funding for reasonable and necessary supports like wheelchairs, payment of personal assistants, early interventions for children with autism etc..

Until a few months ago, I was a member of Australia’s Administrative appeals Tribunal which hears appeals from applicants and participants in the NDIS.

3. You once said “There is an OECD list of countries on persons with disabilities who are employed. We're about third from the bottom.” Why are employers in Australia not hiring more people with disabilities? And what can governments and companies do to ensure more individuals with disabilities are hired?

RM: Yes, this is an OECD document from several years ago listing the percentage of persons with disabilities who are employed. After further reflection, I think I would put Australia in about the middle of this list because countries have differing methods of obtaining statistics. At present, the labour force participation rate, - that is persons between 16 and 65 who can be expected to spend some time in the workforce – is approximately 52% for persons with disabilities, when compared with approximately 82% for typical persons. Many persons with disabilities who are employed, have low paying and part-time jobs. While the Australian Government has several employment programs, I think that the major obstacle is changing societal attitudes concerning us persons with disabilities.

4. You lost your sight at three months from retrolental fibroplasia (RLF). Could you give our readers a brief synopsis of this diagnosis and what it’s like to live with it?

RM: I was born between 8 and 10 weeks premature in October 1948. In those days, they put we premature babies into humidicribs which were made from the purspeks used in the manufacture of canopies of World War II fighter planes. The staff then pumped in pure oxygen to aid our breathing. Oxygen is a very strong gas and it hindered the growth and development of my premature eyes and I lost my sight. About ten thousand persons who were born between 1945 and 1955 in Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Canada and Britain suffered from RLF. The most famous of us is Stevie Wonder from Michigan.

This means that I was born blind, but fortunately I had no other disabilities. I went to segregated schools until I was 14, learning braille and typing etc...

5. You were once the dean of a law school and you said you “kept the law school in the black for five of my five years and got commendations from the president of the university, not an easy thing to do. I think it took up more of my time, but it taught me the value of financial literacy, and I think so many of we blind going into leader positions ought to think about learning financial literacy.” Why is financial literally especially important for blind people and other individuals with disabilities?

RM: I think that financial literacy is important for all persons. However, we persons with disabilities really need to ensure that we know how our finances operate so that we can be on equal footings with our spouses, partners and other family members.

6. You have often emphasized the importance of deep listening. Could you tell our viewers what you mean by this and why it’s so crucial in our lives and careers? And how can we all be better deep listeners?

RM: When I was a graduate student at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, I visited a prison on a weekly basis. During the summer of 1973 several of the prisoners read me material into a tape recorder. I learned in my visits to listen to each of them very carefully indeed. To their words, their silences, their breathing etc.. I have worked on this skill as a law teacher, and more recently as a tribunal member hearing cases brought by applicants seeking reviews of their welfare payments. Each of us has a story to tell, and all of us deserve deep respect.

7. What is the most crucial thing you’ve learned about managing people from high positions? In other words, how are you able to create a productive and cohesive team who pushes the mission forward?

RM: I think one needs to respect every person in the team, to draw them out to excel and to utilize their special and often unique skills. Humility is important here.

8. What are some the greatest lessons you learn as a parent?

RM: I think that the greatest lesson which I learned was that of humility and having empathy and a special place for each child.

9. What are your thoughts on being a role model and living an independent life on your own accord?

I really value and cherish independence and believe that all of us persons with disabilities should be enabled to live independently and obtain full acceptance in our communities.

I think that role models are important. We persons with disabilities need to see persons with disabilities in responsible positions. As a law teacher and as a tribunal member, I hope I have played a small part in this process.

10. You once said wars are great friends of people with disabilities. What did you mean by this?

RM: Often in the past, us people with disabilities have been perceived as separate. Wars create soldiers and civilians with disabilities. Once your comrade was a soldier with you, and then he is disabled. You think, but for the grace of God, this could have been me.

In World War I where many soldiers were blinded by gas, it was the Germans who perfected the use of guide dogs to assist us blind persons. Similarly, after World War II, it was the American, Dr Hoover, who perfected the long cane for those sailors who had been blinded by shipboard explosions.

11. You mentioned that people with disabilities often don’t have the opportunity to partner up, get married, and have children. Why do you think this is the case? And how can society to improve this situation?

RM: Again I think we need to improve societal attitudes to us persons with disabilities. Every day when I wake up beside my wife, just like all other persons who are partnered, I thank God and the universe for my good fortune.

12. What can be changed for the better for blind people all around the globe? What can advocates do to make society more equal and fair for blind people, and the disabled community at large?

RM: This is a big question. Most blind people in our world live in developing countries. Most blind persons live on or below the poverty line, and many in the developing world do not have access to education or to new technologies. If nations cooperate, we have the collective capacities to end such matters: to ensure that everyone has food, shelter, education, access to health care and to technologies etc.. If we spent as much on poverty relief as we do on armaments and nuclear missiles, we could solve these problems.

TGOW: Thank you Prof. McCallum for your time and insightful responses!

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