Opening addresses at the Disability Action Plan launch

26 August 2013

L to R: Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum, Minister for Disability Services John Ajaka, Professor Colin Rhodes, Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence
L to R: Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum, Minister for Disability Services John Ajaka, Professor Colin Rhodes, Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence

Former Dean of Sydney Law School, Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum and Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence gave the following addresses at the launch of the University's third Disability Action Plan, 16 August 2013:

Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum

Let me begin by acknowledging the elders of the Cadigal People of the Eora Nation. We are custodians of the law in this building. The elders of the Cadigal people are also the custodians of their law. I feel a responsibility in this building particularly to show them my deepest respect. I would like to acknowledge Colin. Thank you very much. I do remember my old days. I acknowledge the committee for putting together this magnificent Disability Action Plan.

Can I especially recognise Australia's Disability Commissioner, Graeme Innes. He is in the audience today. We owe him a great deal, because he was one of the key drivers of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. He is also a graduate of this University and I admire his work.

Why do we have a Disability Action Plan? True, we are in a sense required to do so under education standards and to give the plan to the Human Rights Commission pursuant to relevant provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act and Disability Services Act. But why? We're not doing it just to fill legislation. We're doing it because we as a university community recognise that persons with disability have the same rights and inherent dignity as everyone else. As a university, we are committed to diversity and a place in the profession for everyone. That has been the creed of this University since Wentworth opened it in 1852.

This third Disability Action Plan is just a step along the way. Let me tell you a story of my entrance to the University of Sydney. In 1991, the first Professorship in Industrial Law for Australia was advertised here at the University of Sydney. We had two children at that stage and a third was in Mary's tummy. I applied. Mary was in between jobs and I thought, "What do I say to them? I'm going to need a little bit of extra help." There were three of us shortlisted. The other two looked very appointable to me, great scholars. In fact, they have both gone on to have stellar careers.

How was I going to tell them that I needed a synthetic speech program? This was before the Disability Discrimination Act. The head of the committee said, "That's not a big issue. See you later!" I thought, "Oh, another one I have lost." But I got the job and I am very honoured to be the first totally blind professor at any university in Australia or New Zealand.

Later on at a party, I met the deputy vice-chancellor. I said that they did not let me speak about my needs and I was worried that they would not appoint me. Her husband was a surgeon, who fell and became a paraplegic. She said, "I went to medical school. First, with four kids. I became deputy vice-chancellor. Do you think your speech program is significant to me?"

She had a lived experience with disability and looked out and understood the need for diversity. I am, at the moment, the Vice-Chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We are passionate. There are 18 others from around the world, 17 with disabilities, that ensure the future of persons with disabilities is one where they have education and employment, with the inclusive education as an essential human right and an attribute of citizenship of persons with disabilities in all classified countries. That is why I applaud this plan. It says that we are going to open our doors to ensure that persons with disability in this university have a level playing field and can go on from education to employment.

We have a couple of challenges that I have noticed. More persons with disabilities that have registered in this university do not have visible disabilities. It is pretty obvious that I have a sensory disability. Many of our students would have what I might loosely call - and I mean it in the most encompassing way - 'psychosocial disabilities'.

They are making contributions in our education and later on in employment. We are giving them their first chance at education, but it is often hard to explain to the staff that you did not only have physical disabilities, but we have disabilities that aren't seen. We want everyone to feel confident to register under the Disability Program with no shame, but with an understanding that we at this university are here to help. Another challenge, I think, for this university is employing more persons with disability in more areas. We are making efforts, but generally speaking, Australia has a long way to go in this area. We are 26th out of 29 OECD countries. That is why I applaud the Disability Action Plan, the federal disability schemes, and Graeme Innes.

I would also like to mention Professor Mary Crock's work with refugees with a disability and all of the other work that goes on in this great university. I am honoured to be a professor at this University for the last 21 years, and that it is open and continues to be open, that our third Disability Action Plan is even broader than our first two. I welcome it. I applaud it. Bless you all. Thank you very much.

Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence

Thanks very much, Minister, Commissioner, Professor McCallum, ladies and gentlemen. I, too, would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land in which we meet. We are very proud that this is a place where people have been teaching and learning for an awfully long time, tens of thousands of years.

Well, Professor McCallum mentioned the famous William Wentworth speech, when he said it was going to be an unusual kind of institution, the first in the world of its kind. It was going to be an institution that was unusually inclusive. At a time when other universities had religious and other tests, this was going to be open to disciples of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and others. We are very proud of that inclusive history, but it has been a history with extraordinary blind spots.

You could not come to the university if you were a woman until the 1880s, and the first Aboriginal graduate was in the 1960s. You see, we had constructed what education was about, who education was for, in a way that kept people out. We have done that, too, I have to say, to our shame, to people with disabilities. We have constructed campuses that make physical access difficult. We have constructed our conceptions of intelligence in ways that make it difficult for people with cognitive disabilities of various kinds. We have said that you are intelligent if you can process information in a particular way and produce an essay, or write an exam in three hours, as one kind of measure of intelligence, and have not thought creatively about what it might be to educate fully people with other kinds of intelligence.

This Disability Action Plan says that there are no easy questions in this whole area. We are going to have to think carefully about what it means to be a place that welcomes people with disabilities and to be a place that welcomes them on to our campuses, in our education, and to welcome people with physical and cognitive disabilities as well. That is going to make us think about who we are, what we do, and why we do it.

Now, why should an institution like ours be interested in that? Well, so far, there has been a lot on words like 'prejudice' and 'justice'. There have been a lot of words like 'rights', and they are important words, words that focus on people with a disability. But I am Vice-Chancellor, and my job is about the university as a whole, and what I am interested in is making this a university in which people truly learn, in which our community reaps the benefits of the intellectual offerings of people of as diverse a group as possible.

Can you imagine what the community would be like if the appointments committee had said to Professor McCallum, "Actually, no, you cannot have this job because we cannot afford that speech kit"? We would have been poorer as a community for not having the intellectual contribution that he could have made. It seems to me that it is not just a matter of rights for the individual, but about making sure that our community is as rich as it possibly can be, as rich with the offerings of as diverse a group of people as it can possibly have.

Then we will realise the Wentworth vision. Then we will truly be a place that can harvest the intellectual resources of this remarkable state to serve the people of NSW and beyond. What I like about our Disability Action Plan is the way that it is constructed. It does not say, "This is the responsibility of a unit or a group of people, or a set of people whose special day job it is." It says that these are questions in which our whole community is going to have to engage, as we think about what we have to do in as inclusive a way as possible, in which we make sure that we are not, for no reason, shutting anybody out.

I would like to congratulate Professor Rhodes and the Development Group for their work on the Disability Action Plan. The hardest bit is yet to come. But this is a good moment to say that it is a great plan and we have set ourselves some great goals. Thank you, Minister, for joining us this morning for what is a very important step to becoming the kind of place that we think our founders hoped we would be. Thank you very much.

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