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The most important thing I've done is to teach students


15 August 2013

Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum: "After a year in class, my students never think of a person with a disability in the same way again."
Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum: "After a year in class, my students never think of a person with a disability in the same way again."

Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum has been teaching law for more than 41 years. One of the most important lessons he taught had nothing to do with legal textbooks.

"After a year in class, my students never think of a person with a disability in the same way again. When you get to know people you no longer think of them as being different," says Professor McCallum, the first totally blind person to be appointed the dean of a law school in Australia.

His students have gone on to be become prominent judges, politicians and lawyers. One of his former students, federal minister Bill Shorten, has become a champion for the rights of people with disabilities, helping to lay the foundations of the National Disability Insurance Scheme when he was Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities between 2007 and 2011.

It's a theme that Professor McCallum has seen throughout his career. People who know someone with a disability are more likely to be attuned to the issues they confront. They are also more likely to believe in the abilities of people with a disability.

Professor McCallum recalls being surprised by the openness of the University to his disability when he was interviewed for the first full professorship in labour law at an Australian university.

"I had told the University I would need assistive technology to do my work and they were more than accommodating," he remembers.

He later spoke to the head of the selection panel, former deputy vice-chancellor Dr Sue Dorsch, who told him how her own husband had fallen off a horse on their hobby farm and become a paraplegic. He was a GP before the accident, after the accident he went back to medical school and became an anaesthetist.

"With some of my colleagues who had never met someone with a disability, it took some time for them to get to know me. But when they did I think they realised, we persons with disabilities, most of us are pretty ordinary people."

Professor McCallum was dean of the Sydney Law School from 2002 to 2007.

"As dean, I tried to be welcoming of people from different backgrounds, people with disabilities and men and women from a range of backgrounds," he says.

"I am particularly proud of the New Law Building. I wanted to make it accessible for people with a disability, and it has hearing loops, braille signage and accessible facilities.

"As a public body we should ensure our staff and students mirror the community. It would be a strange university if we didn't employ any women and we've done our best to employ more women.

"Similarly, we should look at how we can increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working here. And we should employ people with disabilities: they have the capacity if given the chance."

Professor McCallum will deliver the keynote address at the launch of the University's third Disability Action Plan on Friday 16 August.

"Policies like the Disability Action Plan are powerful statements that make staff aware of an organisation's view. It is a reminder to staff and students that we are inclusive institution."


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Media enquiries: Sally Sitou, 02 9351 8647, sally.sitou@sydney.edu.au