Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Blindness didn’t stop high-profile lawyer

 

On Wednesday 17 July 2019, the young men of Warrane College welcomed Professor Ron McCallum AO as their formal dinner guest. He was accompanied by his wife Professor Mary Crock. Not only is he one of Australia’s most respected industrial and discrimination lawyers and a prominent human rights advocate, his career has also included being a legal academic, Dean at the University of Sydney Law School, Chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and 2011 recipient of Senior Australian of the Year. Perhaps most impressive is that fact that being blind hasn’t stopped him from doing any of this.

McCallum began by telling the young men a bit about his life, and his belief that he was ‘born at the right time’ (also the title of his book, Allen and Unwin 2019). “I’ve lived through an extraordinary technical revolution, which has revolutionised the lives of we blind people, and other people with disabilities. If you think that computers have changed your lives… it’s nothing compared to what’s happened for we people with disabilities. And it shows how technology can be used for the common good.”

Born in 1948, McCallum was eight weeks premature. At this time, pure oxygen was pumped into the humidicribs for premature babies, and this affected his eyes to the point of losing his sight some days after birth. He told the boys how from 1945-55, there are about 10,000 babies in the developed world who also lost their sight in the same way – Stevie Wonder being perhaps the most well-known of these. In 1955 they learnt to control the amount of oxygen.

He went on, “Life for blind people was not great, because we couldn’t read the printed word. And so most jobs were not open to us… For many of us, life would be in sheltered workshops…”

Across from his school for the blind, there was a basket-making factory for blind people. Even as a very little boy, McCallum knew he didn’t
want that. He wanted to be a high school history teacher but when his marks were too high, he studied law at Monash, and ended up being quite good at it. Going on to be an academic, the main difficulty was reading documents, but he got people to read him material which he’d record on a tape.

The impact of family and technology

Next, McCallum spoke to the young men about the 1980s and three things that happened which “turned his life around” for the better – marriage, kids and information technology.

“Many people with disabilities don’t have the option to partner,” he said. “We don’t meet people, we’re seen on the periphery, we don’t have the option to partner, we don’t have the option to parent. And that came to me quite extraordinarily with a six-week courtship.” He briefly explained how he met his now-wife, talking about how this support in his life really helped him to thrive.

“I think what I have suffered before I married was being perceived of as on the periphery of society. Because I was on my own, living on
my own, I had a significant disability, I was using fairly primitive technology to do my work. I would never have become a professor had I not been married and had children. I never would have become Dean of Sydney Law School… What I’ve suffered is what I think many minorities do… we’re seen as different, and we’re often not seen as being capable.”

He also talked about the revolution that started happening around that time in computer-based adaptive technology. “A month after our
first child was born – he’s now 32… I got my first computer. It was a blind computer – it didn’t have a screen but it had a voice. And for the first time in my life, it could read out what I had written! This may seem very simple to you but I had written a 600-page book on an ordinary typewriter from memory! So this was quite extraordinary. And within two years I got my first scanner… You could put a book on the scanner and it would scan it and it would read it out in synthetic speech.”

McCallum went on, “What this has meant is that for the first time in history, we blind people could read the printed word… That means jobs
are open to us. I may have become a professor of law but I could not have become the dean of law, I could not have been an adviser to three state governments and federal government on labour relations, I couldn’t have been a good dad or a good husband, I could not have been a chair on a UN committee… So it’s been the technology that has caused a huge revolution… And now that technology has shrunk to the level of our mobile phones!”

McCallum showed the young men how to find accessibility features on their iPhones – now built in as universal design to help all sorts
of people with disabilities. He also told them about useful apps such as ‘Be my eyes’, which has seeing volunteers to help out – even with things as simple as picking a tie to match a suit or reading the results of a pregnancy test.

“Technology when used in its proper manner can really assist us and bring us together!” said McCallum. “Life is complex… It showed me that
whenever opportunities arise, if you can you should grip them with both hands… You’re not in a dress rehearsal… this is it for all of us! We’re only passing this way once. So we should use this time to meet people, to experience, to reach out, to learn to give, and to learn to be human. And I think that’s the best message I can give you.”

[Warrane College offers much more than just student accommodation at UNSW: find out about our other guest speakers]