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Legal Leaders: Against the odds -- Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum

Legal Leaders: Against the odds -- Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum

Living with a disability has not stopped Ron McCallum from carving out a career that is the envy of his peers in the legal profession. He speaks to Claire Chaffey about his professional feats…

Living with a disability has not stopped Ron McCallum from carving out a career that is the envy of his peers in the legal profession. He speaks to Claire Chaffey about his professional feats and, more importantly, finding love, inspiration and laughter in the legal world.

To watch our exclusive video with Senior Australian on the Year, Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum AO, in which he talks about love, equality and the true meaning of happiness, click here.
Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum AO is completely blind. He has been since he was born, prematurely, in 1948.

He has never seen his wife's face, or his children's. He has, in fact, never seen anyone's face. Sometimes, he says, he feels like parts of his brain are missing, and concepts which to the seeing are simple - such as the glowing light of a computer mouse - are difficult to grasp.

But this is not a state of being which he laments, nor is it one which defines him or causes him sadness.

He has, he says, been far too loved in his lifetime, has too many things for which to be grateful, and too many important roles to fill to spend time contemplating what many others might see as a great loss.

Whether he is teaching law students at the University of Sydney, consulting at law firm HWL Ebsworth, or chairing the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), McCallum does it all with great intellect, integrity, humility and - above all - an unfailing sense of humour. Understandably, this makes him popular amongst his students and peers and has elevated him to the rank of role model; not only for those in the legal profession, but also for his fellow "brothers and sisters", as he calls others with disabilities.

McCallum has become a leader in the truest sense of the word: an example of excellence, against all odds, in the legal profession and an inspiration for the four million Australians living with disability.

Humble beginnings

McCallum was born into a poor family in Melbourne at a time when there was limited technology to ease the burden of living with total blindness. When he went to school, nothing was straight forward: everything had to be read to him and his prospects of a satisfying career were limited.

At the time, clerical occupations weren't open to the blind, and McCallum was faced with the prospect of either making baskets, which was then the occupation of choice for the blind, or go onto something at a high level.

Fortunately, and despite the obvious difficulties associated with academia and blindness in the pre-computer age, McCallum excelled in his high school studies. Ironically, it was the very fact that he is blind which pushed him into tertiary study.

"I came from a very poor background and ... my brother was a truck driver," he says.

"As one of his friends said to me, 'Well Ron, if you can't drive a truck you might as well go to university'. So really, I think in some ways [being blind] has given me great opportunities."

"Leaving aside family, the most important thing I have done has been to teach law students well for 37-odd years"

Passionate about history, McCallum initially wanted to become a history teacher. However, perhaps intuitively, his mother suggested he give law a go.

Beginning his studies at Monash University in 1967, McCallum had heard of an associate professor by the name of Laurie McCready. McCready had suffered a military accident in 1952 and, when he and McCallum eventually crossed paths, McCready wielded great influence on McCallum and was able to show him just what people with a disability could achieve.

"Laurie ... saved the life of a recruit," he says. "He saved his life but lost his hand and his sight. So Laurie was a great inspiration to me."

McCallum also found great inspiration in the law, and his dreams of teaching history soon faded into the background.

His mother's suggestion, it seemed, would become his calling.

Date with destiny

Anyone who knows McCallum is familiar with his self-deprecating sense of humour, quick wit and larger-than-life persona. While these traits naturally endear him to those around him, they are also ones which McCallum - in a world in which he could see - would have liked to have used in a different capacity.

"I would have loved to have become a barrister. I think there's a bit of an actor in me," he says.

"But I could see that I would have to have every document read to me, either into a tape recorder or read to me directly. In court, people often come up with documents at the last minute, so I could see that I might get ambushed.

"In 1971, being a barrister was not open to me, but if I were 23-years-old in 2011, with all the technology, I'd jump at being a barrister."

"I think in some ways [being blind] has given me great opportunities."

The courtroom's loss, however, was the gain of thousands of law students who have, over the past 37 years, had McCallum - who was the first totally blind person to ever receive a full professorship at an Australian university - as their lecturer.

He insists that all his students call him Ron ("No-one has ever called me professor," he says) and is concerned about the pressures and expectations placed on students today.

"It is often the case that older people say that things are much better now, and it's true that for persons with disabilities there are huge technological changes," he says.

"But the pressures [on students] are much greater today ... When I was a young teacher at Monash Law School, there was no Federal Court. You forget about the avalanche of laws and statutes and, because of the internet, we make students do a lot more research. I think it is probably just as difficult today as it was when I was a student 41 years ago."

A brilliant career

McCallum has gone on to create for himself a career the envy of many. He has taught law students around the world, authored numerous books on labour law, served a five-year term as Dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of Sydney, was the inaugural president of the Australian Labour Law Association, and the Asian regional vice-president of the International Society for Labour and Social Security Law.

Deservedly, McCallum was also named the 2011 Senior Australian of the Year (a title with which he struggled at first, he laughs, because "I always think of myself as such a young thing").

While this list of achievements is by no means exhaustive, it is perhaps his current position as Chair of the UNCRPD which he counts as a career highlight.

"There have only been three other Australians who have been on United Nations treaty bodies," he says without even a hint of pretension.

"It is only myself and [one other] who have had the privilege of being Chair of a United Nations treaty body, so that has to be a career highlight."

The passion which McCallum has for the work of the UNCPRD is obvious, and he becomes animated as he discusses the recent progress the committee - which is made up of 18 members from around the world (15 of which have disabilities) - has made with Tunisia.

"In October last year we decided we'd go ahead [and deal] with the report from Tunisia," he recounts.

"Well, we didn't anticipate the 14 January revolution. This occurred, but Tunisia said they would still agree to dialogue ... We had a fascinating discussion."

Tunisia is drafting its constitution, explains McCallum, and the committee questioned whether people with disabilities were involved and suggested that proper discrimination laws, with concepts like reasonable accommodation, be established.

"We asked them to ensure that people with intellectual or psycho-social disabilities aren't restrained in institutions simply because of their disability. They have agreed to look at all of our recommendations. It's quite extraordinary."

Crowning acheivements

Despite his work with the UN, McCallum is still adamant that the most important thing he has ever done - aside from marrying fellow law professor Mary Crock and having three children - is becoming a teacher.

"Leaving aside family, the most important thing I have done has been to teach law students well for 37-odd years," he says.

"I don't think that my students think about persons with disabilities in the same way. There is nothing like dealing with people on an equal basis, whether it is disability or gender or race, and you suddenly realise that they are all the same.

"That is the most lasting thing I have done. It's our living and our interaction with people, and the moment of being with people, that really counts in life."

IN CONVERSATION WITH: Watch our interview with Ron McCallum below, the second in our series of in depth 'In Conversation with" videos with the legal industry's most interesting and inspiring individuals. Alternatively, click here to watch.

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