McCallum urges tolerance, acceptance

  • December 31, 2010
  • Bruce Bromley

A blind lawyer and academic who continues to break stereotypes, Professor Ron McCallum has never let disability hinder his achievements.

He hopes being named Senior Australian of the Year for 2011 will help him achieve his ultimate aim: to ensure all people with a disability are treated equally.

“I feel greatly honored … greatly humbled, (although) I feel a very young senior,” the 62-year-old told reporters after the announcement of his latest achievement at Canberra’s Parliament House.

Advertisement: Story continues below Businessman and philanthropist Simon McKeon took out the Australian of the Year honours, while teenage sailor Jessica Watson and anti-suicide campaigner Donald Ritchie also received accolades.

Asked how he planned to spend 2011, Prof McCallum said he wanted to change the attitudes of everyday Australians to be more thoughtful about and accepting of the disabled.

They deserved to be treated equally, he said.

“We have inequality in our laws of access, difficulties in access in transport and information.

“We’re working hard on them, governments are working hard … (but) that’s where the inequality lies.

“I want to get out and meet fellow Australians and show them that we people with disabilities are the same as everyone else.”

The odds were against Prof McCallum in his early years. He was born blind and grew up in a poor household under the reign of an alcoholic father.

But he fought his circumstances, attended university in both Melbourne and Canada, and began notching up accomplishment after accomplishment despite his disability.

Among his many milestones, he was the first totally blind person to be appointed to a full professorship at an Australian university when he began with the University of Sydney in 1993.

He later became the dean of its law faculty, from 2002 to 2007. He has headed various taskforces and reviews.

He has written extensively on labour law matters and was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2006.

One of 12 members of the first monitoring committee for the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Prof McCallum is also now its chair.

He holds the same position for the NSW branch of Radio for the Print Handicapped, which reads newspapers and magazines over the airwaves and is also one of two deputy chairs of Vision Australia.

Australia’s disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes said Prof McCallum was a deserving winner and an exceptional Australian.

“(He) has demonstrated clearly the contribution which Australians with disability can make if we are given – or create – the opportunity to do so,” he said in a statement.

Prof McCallum will encourage the federal government to do more to make life easier for people with disabilities through the National Disability Scheme, which is still being worked out.

He was recently appointed to the government’s National People with Disabilities and Carers Council.

“We have the second highest unemployment level of any minority group,” Prof McCallum said, noting that the highest was experienced by indigenous people.

“We need to become more inclusive to lessen those inequality barriers.”