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The Power Of Self Belief With Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum AO

Discover the incredible journey of Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum AO, the first Blind person to be appointed full Professor.

Ron discusses how computer-based technology has transformed his life; a life that has included being on The UN Committee for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, assisting the Chair during the Disability Royal Commission, and educating many of our top politicians who now guide and lead Australia.

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Instagram: @petahooke


Episode Transcript:


Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to The I Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast, and to your questions about what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peta. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week I have Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum. Ron was the first person who is blind to be appointed full professor back in 1993. He was also appointed to the UN Committee for the Rights of Persons with disabilities. So, you know, he has an amazing story to share. Without any further ado, let's get into it.


Ron [00:00:53] My name is Ron McCallum. I'm 75 years of age and I have been totally blind since my birth. My blindness was caused by what was then known as Retrolental Fibroplasia. In other words, I was about eight weeks premature. And to keep me alive, they used pure oxygen, which destroyed my eyes.


Peta [00:01:17] I want to get started. And what's really struck me and I feel like is a perfect way to start this conversation. Ron. Why do you believe that you were born at the right time?


Ron [00:01:30] That's the title of my 2019 memoir, and I believe I was born at the right time because modern computer based information technology has changed my life. We blind people have been on the planet since the rest of you. We lived in the caves and right up to the present day, and I'm amongst the first blind people ever in the history of our world that's been able to read using computer based adaptive technology. True, there was Braille reading, but now I can scan any book and have it read out to me in synthetic speech. That's extraordinary.


Peta [00:02:12] And I know you're a prolific reader, and I want to touch on your memory and abilities a little bit later on. And I agree with you. I think, you know, we're both very blessed to be alive in a time where there's so much support for disabled people, both in society and technology as well. Looking back for when you were a little boy, how did you feel society approached you as far as your own ambition to feel that you had to prove yourself or prove people wrong?


Ron [00:02:47] Oh, I'm sure that I had to prove myself when I was born. The occupations for blind people were very few because we couldn't read the printed word. I went to segregated schools for the first 8 or 9 years of my education, and in my early classes at the Royal Victorian Institute for the blind, it was called an institute. It was previously known as the asylum for the blind. But in that school, some of my classmates had brain damage. So I'm used to being educated with everybody. I'm a great believer in us all being together. Boys. Girls. Disabled. Non-disabled. I came from a poor background. My oldest brother was a truck driver talking to the guys when I was a teenager. One of them said to me, well, Ron, if you can't drive a truck, you might as well go to law school. I came to Melbourne's Monash University in 1967, in the fourth intake, and I had a marvellous dean. David Durham. And he wanted a law class that was diverse, and he wanted me as a person with disabilities to add to that diversity. So I had some extraordinary teachers and helpers that helped along the way.


Peta [00:04:04] And speaking of your childhood and reading your amazing book, I highly recommend everybody listening to this episode to go and have a look at the book. I'll link it to this episode so it's easy for everybody to find. But while I was reading your book, I was struck by the importance of how your mother shaped your identity and giving you a feeling of safety. I imagine her passing would have been very difficult for you. But as a person who is blind, how do you go about remembering someone? Do you go through favourite songs or maybe a family recipe when you can't rely on photographs?


Ron [00:04:43] Your question piqued my interest as to how I remember people and I've been thinking about it. I hear their voice. I hear the voices of loved ones who have now passed on, and it's quite uncanny. I don't know whether, but do you hear the voices of loved ones passed over or that doesn't, resonate with you.


Peta [00:05:07] A little bit, but I'm much more visual, I have to say. Yeah. I think of their eyes more than anything. Does smell come back to you. Maybe your mother's perfume or a recipe in the family. What other things do you use to remember people?


Ron [00:05:25] Smells very important in all of my memories. So I smell a great deal even in dreams. And I can smell food. When I walk along the street. When I go walking and shopping, I know where I am by smelling the different shops, the florist, the supermarket. So I rely upon smell all the time. Yeah.


Peta [00:05:49] As you mentioning before, you quite rightly of it being a very accomplished person in your career. You were the first one person to be appointed full professor in 1993. Why do you think you were able to achieve at such a high level? High level? I beg your pardon? Hard work and intelligence, of course. But success in the disability community can mean lots of things. And there's not necessarily an expected path of success for disabled people. So I'm interested to hear what elements do you think gave you the ability to achieve to the level that you have?


Ron [00:06:31] I'm not sure, but I think it was honing my skills down to areas where I could survive well. When I was studying law, I would have loved to have been a barrister and go on to court. But I realised in those days we were talking now about 1970 and 71, long before computers, that the other side would swamp me with documents and I couldn't read them instantly. So I thought to myself, what could I do? And I thought, well, I could teach law because I would have read the material and I could teach students. And then the next issue was. How do I convince a university in Australia to take a blind person or as a teacher? And I thought the only way to do that was to get a scholarship and go overseas and do postgraduate study and then come back. 1970 71. We were still in the area of cultural cringe. We didn't quite believe they had done something overseas. So I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to go overseas and was able to go to Canada and study labour law at Queen's University in the snow.


Peta [00:07:49] Amazing. I am so struck, struck by your self-belief. And you just seem talking to here Ron. You just thought you could do it if you tried and worked as hard as you clearly did.


Ron [00:08:03] Yeah, I think back. I mean, it's kind of extraordinary that I would go to Canada by myself, knowing nobody. And I had never been on a plane before.


Peta [00:08:15] Oh. Wow.


Ron [00:08:16] At the age of 23, I've never been on a plane. I asked the steward for a parachute. I thought that's what you asked for. She said, we don't have parachutes on this plane. And there were no earphones and I had no Walkman. So what do you have to do? It's just meditate for 24 hours because there's nothing else. Nothing else you can do. So, yeah, I think, I had a very strong mother who who had me at the age of 40, and in some senses she was a grandmother. But she had a long, complex story. But as she explained to me, the world, I mean, nothing. The world owed me nothing. I'm here and I should make the best of my skills. And even though she didn't know anything about law, wasn't educated. She read me, throughout my high school and university years. I think we all need people to believe in us, and I think if we have love and belief, we can almost do anything. When I finished my graduate studies and I was 25. Monash University Law School was looking for a labour law teacher. And I knew me and I came along at the right time. And so they hired me. When I look back and I see the struggles that many of my sisters and brothers with disabilities have had and still have. I find it amazing that I sort of sailed into this job. And can I say, I don't think at the age of 25 I thought enough about that. I look back and I think I might have been a little brash or a little young, and I thought okay, I'm going to do that job. But I didn't really think back about how momentous that probably was. I feel a bit ashamed about that now.


Peta [00:10:12] We can all reflect on our past selves and think I should have thought a different way, but in the end, society progresses and I think it's great that we, the disabled community, are so connected now and we are able to better understand how other people live. Because after all, back before the internet, we weren't really that aware of what life was like for other people. I was going to ask you what your peers and your friends did, who you went to to school with.


Ron [00:10:47] Some made it through university, some worked in sheltered workshops. Some were was a telephonist. Those that made it through university, weren't often given the chance of promotion. So I was say it was a tough road. And remember going to university in those days. There were very few, if any, textbooks in Braille we are talking pre computers. So you had to find people who would read stuff for you and put it all to tape, which was the best way. I won't overstate being a poor background, but I didn't know anything about universities. We use the term now first in family, so I was the first in family to go to university, and I'm at this big place called Monash University, and I didn't know where the toilets were. I was too scared to ask anybody. I think I was silly. So the only way I could survive for the first year, just not drinking much. Does this university place belong to me. Does it really cover people with disabilities? So what am I doing here?


Peta [00:11:57] So it would be remiss of me to not touch on your amazing memory. Ron, do you have any advice for us who might not necessarily be blind or visually impaired to improve our memory?


Ron [00:12:12] My memory is never far less than it was because I can note things down on computers. But before that I remembered 300 telephone numbers and everything. Memory is a bit like muscles in the sense that you have to keep working on it. So I work very well on sequences of numbers and on spaces. But there was no alternative, you know? In open book exams. I couldn't read the books, but I had to find friends to read. And I found that I could always get, friends to read me criminal law. And then I teamed up with friends. One of my great friends, who is a retired lawyer, Ian MacDonald, and he he walked on sticks. He had a shooting accident when he was 16 and he and I would combine early on Saturday morning. We'd go into the Monash Library. Ian would find the books because he could read, and I would carry them back to the photo stat machine would each make two copies of what we needed. Neither of us could do it on our own, but we could do it together.


Peta [00:13:26] And you've clearly teamed up with lots of different people from different parts of our society. And I agree with you. I think when you have a disability, you are open to all sorts of different people because you understand what it's like to be different. You're more open minded. It's probably a more eloquent way of me explaining that. Tell me about the time that prisoners in jail helped you.


Ron [00:13:54] I was writing this thesis on labour law at Queen's University in Canada. And Canada's a very seasonable country with the snow in the cold. So in the summer, the students left the university and I didn't have any people to read to me because I used to get the students to help me. So someone suggested Kingston, where Queen's University is surrounded by prisons. Why don't you see if the prisoners will read to you? So I used to go for a year to Collins Bay jail, and I have coffee with them every Tuesday evening, and I left them a tape recorder and some material, and I took it in turns to read to me. My boys as I called them, we're all in for ten years or more. What they appreciated was me listening to them. My job was not to say anything or to preach. My job was to be there. When I left and I got my degree and I had to go say good bye to my boys, one of them said, well, Ron it's really been great helping you get your degree, but it really did belong to the other side. I said, I'm sorry about that. But that taught me the importance of listening. And when I was on United Nations Disability Committee for the Human Rights Treaties and dealt with people with disabilities all over the world, things got quite complicated and there was one person who was yelling at me about I wasn't doing enough for those who had fallen foul of psychologists. And in the end, I said, can we please hold hands? And she said, why? Why do you want to hold my hand? And I said, well, you must stop yelling at me. And we can actually. Understand, one another. So a lot of my time. Even in Geneva, with people with disabilities was holding hands physically. So let's talk hold my hand. Let's talk. See what we both think, I want to listen to you deeply about your life. And I've got all the time in the world. So that was extraordinary. And that came from my work on prisoners.


Peta [00:16:01] I did want to mention, talk about your time on the UN Committee for the Rights of Persons with disabilities. What were the most pressing aspects or issues that you were hoping to tackle during that time?


Ron [00:16:15] Can I begin by making a confession that, I had not been heavily involved in disability politics up until I went to the UN in 2009. I had been involved in blindness organisations and I think very busy being an academic, etc. and when I got to Geneva and I met all the other members of the committee, I learned. Obvious things that most people with disability in the world live in poverty, that most people live in underdeveloped countries, and that most people have never had the opportunities that I've had. The most important things that I think we need for people with disability in the world, are medical treatment, education at the moment as we speak. 4 million Blind children who are not at school because in many underdeveloped countries, the leaders will say to you, look, we're trying to educate our able bodied children don't have room for blind children. Similarly, with deaf children, there are 4 million deaf children not being educated. Issues of violence, particularly against women and girls and sometimes against men. That was happening all over the world. There was no sharp distinction in the sense between developed countries and less developed. You know, all countries were trying to do things. In Australia you know, one woman dies every week. And for disabled women and girls. And you don't need me to tell you this particular if you are in an institution. The the issues of violence and sexual exploitation, particularly if you are a woman or girl with cognitive disabilities. It's a worldwide problem employment. Even in Australia, it's only 52% we persons with disabilities that are in an employment, and that figure has not altered for 30 years. I've met amazing people that I put my metaphorical eyes to the worldwide problems of we people with disabilities. And later on I worked on the Disabilities Royal Commission as senior advisor to the chair.


Peta [00:18:34] Well, and I wanted to speak to you about that because, I knew you were highly involved into the Disability Royal Commission, which was handed down last year. Those issues that you highlighted before when we were talking about the UN committee, obviously those those issues were also echoed in the findings in the Royal Commission many years after your work at, the UN committee. So it just goes to show how like you said, these issues seem to just constantly never progress and unfortunately is unlikely to improve, although I hope it will. How do you how do you feel about disabled life in Australia today based on the Royal Commission?


Ron [00:19:24] My disabled sisters and brothers whom I really feel for, brothers with cognitive disabilities. The guardianship laws to reform. It's very important that we allow them to be assisted by family and friends where they need it. And then we limit guardianship to only a few cases. I think we need to realise that half the people in our prisons are people with disabilities. And we should have diversion programs. Many of them shouldn't be in prison at all. We need to step up on our employment. Very much. For people as fortunate as myself. Life goes by. Okay. But for many of my sisters and brothers, you know, it's just an effort every day to get up and to get moving. I think the NDIS has been a great innovation for we people with disabilities. And I credit my friend that she's a friend actually Julia Gillard, for pushing forward with that. I just think we need to get our employment rate up so that more and more of us can earn our own living and make way in the community. I would abolish group homes that have to be a time limit, but I think the level of mistreatment that became apparent in the Royal Commission in group homes quite surprised me. I naively thought if you had  5 or 6 people in a group home. It's better than a big institution. No, doubt it's better than a big institution. and no doubt some of them work well, but I was surprised by the level of violence and bad living that many people had in group homes.


Peta [00:21:15] Yes, absolutely. It just goes to show how vulnerable disabled people can be, particularly when they don't necessarily have the power or choice to live where they want to  live, with people that they want to live with. I'm very conscious that we've headed down a very serious line Ron in our conversations, and I just want to lighten things up a little bit. Is there anything you love about being blind, like as a sighted person? You know, please ignore me if I'm being too naive in my perspective, but I imagine it would come in handy when it comes to things like public speaking. You wouldn't necessarily need to imagine us in our underwear.


Ron [00:21:58] That's right. I don't imagine you in underwear. I think I'd say, because I've always been blind. I can't imagine. Difference. I think I would find if I got my sight back. I have almost a brain implosion because so much stimulus comes through vision that my my brain isn't trained for. It's very clear to me there are things that I will never comprehend. I'll never comprehend a sunset. I Will never comprehend what it's like. When you look into someone's eyes or when they look into your eyes. When I was four, my mum was reading to my brothers and I about the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, and she was showing them the pictures, and I put my hands up like this to feel my pictures. And she said, no, darling, remember that you can't see and you can't feel those pictures. And I realised that the grownups could read these books, that I couldn't couldn't feel anything else on the paper. And I remember thinking to myself. as a four year old, well hang on that's what I want to do. And now I can. Before computer based adaptive technology. Blind people couldn't. And we've been living for millions of years. And that I'm here and I'm in a developed country where I can just get this quite easily. I'm still blown away. I married Mary Kroc who is professor of public law in 1986, and those few years were extraordinary. Courting marriage, sex, sexuality, and then children and computer based adaptive technology. It all affected my mind. So how do I catch up? what's happening. My world is exploding. I've actually had some counselling. Was explained to me Look, you know, these are extraordinary things that have happened in your life. Don't try and catch up. Just. Just enjoy life and be thankful that you have all these bounteous things that other people that have. And at that stage we'd also moved to Sydney, where I was professor. I was having a complex time. I was an outsider at Sydney Law School, and a couple of my colleagues would come up to me and say, Ron, I want you to know that I'm not calling you the equal opportunity professor, which meant that some were. But then I got on well with the University of Sydney and settled and ended up becoming dean of that law school. People ask me now I'm retired. What's the most important thing you've done in your life? And they point to The UN and things in labour relations law. And I said no, no, no. Leaving aside the children, most important thing I have done is teach those students for 51 years. Whether Peter Costello or Bill Shorten. And I like to think that I gave Bill Shorten a few pointers about disability, which he is now very involved in it. For students to have me in the classroom for a year or a semester. I think they never think about people with disabilities in the same way, and that's why we need more of us out where, you know, in shops,  in wherever so that people can recognise we're just as human. There are some of us that are geniuses, not me. Some of us who are S.O.B, hopefully not me. But most of us are ordinary people. To use a colloquialism, you know. We all put our pants on the same way. We're no different, really. But that's what I want people to recognise. That we're all part of the same human family.


Peta [00:26:06] Thank you for listening to this week's episode with Ron McCallum. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to Ron and I hope you enjoyed listening. If you did, can I encourage you to leave a rating and review on whatever podcasting platform you listen on? Share the show with a friend, or you can go follow me on social media over on Instagram. My handle is at Peter Hook spelt pay 80 8HO. Okay. Thank you again for listening. And until next week. Have a good one guys. Bye. I would like to respectfully acknowledge theWurundjeri, Boonwurrung people of the Kulin  nation, of which I record the podcast today. And I pay my respects to both elders, past and present, along with and especially to those in the First Nations communities who are disabled themselves.



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