Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum AO talks about the challenges of people with disabilities, the situation in developing countries- and about his personal experiences as the first fully blind person to be appointed to a full professorship in any faculty at any Australian university.
In an interview with the Inter Press Service (IPS) following the Fourth Session of the Conference of the States Parties to the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) at U.N. headquarters in New York, IPS correspondent Christian Papesch posed a number of questions, the transcript of which is below:
Q: One of the main topics considered at the conference was the employment challenges faced by people with disabilities. Why is employment so important?
A: I don't think I would have received the same respect in Australia, if I wasn't working. When you speak with somebody, within 10 minutes the question is: What do you do? Because what we do defines us.
The most important thing that people with disabilities want: We want work. We'd like to support ourselves and if we have families we'd like to support our families. We don't want to live on social welfare. If you look at the costs of disability welfare, they are enormous. Billions of Euros are spend on disability patients.
Some of my sisters and brothers can't work because of their disabilities. But it would be better for society if we would have more progress and encourage more of us to work.
Q: Eighty percent of the persons with disabilities live in developing countries. How is their situation and how is your cooperation with the governments?
A: When you are dealing with developed countries, you ask questions like: Are you increasing your level of employment or what are you doing about people with mental disabilities in your guardianship laws? That's the level that you get.
The conversations you get with developing countries are: Do you have a law preventing discrimination against disabled children? Are women with disabilities allowed to marry? You get down to this basic level.
I was sitting with a boy; he was about 19 years old and lost both his legs when he picked up a cluster bomb in Afghanistan. So I said what is it like in Afghanistan? And he said: 'Look, in your country, I go in a building and there is an elevator. In Kabul, there are no working elevators. I am stuck on the ground floor everywhere.'
But I want to say that countries like Kenya are improving. I think that we had a big effect on Latin America. So there are countries that are doing it correctly.
Q: Do women with disabilities face specific problems? And what are the actions of your committee regarding this issue?
A: Whenever we dialogue with a country we ask them what's happening about women. Sadly, the educational levels of women with disabilities are lower than the educational levels of men. And the figures on women with disabilities being subject to violence, or sexual violence, are quite high. Many women with mental disabilities often fall victims to sexual assault, often because the perpetrators know that it will be difficult for them in court to give evidence against them.
There is also the issue of sterilisation of women with disabilities. Sometimes parents of teenage women want that done. Rights of women to have children and to have care of their children are a very big issue.
Q: The Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities came into force in May 2008. What are you proud of- and what are your future goals?
A: The first thing I am proud of is that we have had so many countries ratifying, because 103 is very good in just over three years. The fastest convention to be ratified was the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but the second largest is the CRPD.
The second thing I am proud of are the states parties themselves. They have elected to the committee 15 of the 18 persons with disabilities. It's a big theme to ask countries to put up people with disabilities to sit in a committee. In the future, we are trying to write to comments on the convention, the first is on legal capacity and guardianship and the second, which is maybe five or six years away, dealing with access to buildings and transport.
We are also campaigning for more countries to ratify the convention and for an increase on our meeting time.
Q: You are a very successful man and you career might be seen as a guideline for others. How did your disability affect your law studies? Did you experience scepticism or discrimination?
A: I would have loved to become a lawyer who would appear in court. But I couldn't read documents, so that would have been very hard. So I decided to become an academic, at least I would have read the material beforehand.
What happened in the mid-1980s was computers, so they put a synthetic voice on the computer and I could read what was on the screen. This gave me huge liberation. But I think it was not until I married and got children that people saw me in the centre of society. Before that I was just seen as a very unusual academic who lived on the edges on society, who was different.
But leaving aside wife and children, the most important thing I have done is teach law. I teach students for a year- and I think at the end of this year they never quite think of people with disabilities the same way again.
Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum AO is the chair of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities CRPD.
He was Dean of the Sydney Law School from 2002 to 2007.