Sydney Law School professor focuses on ability not disability

Sydney Law School's 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.

University of Sydney Law School
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“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 of Sydney 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 anesthetist.

“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 realized, 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, adding that he is  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.”

The former Sydney Law School dean stated, “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.”

Professor McCallum delivered the keynote address at the launch of the university’s third Disability Action Plan on Aug. 16.

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

About Sydney Law School

Sydney Law School is Australia’s first. Since its inception, it has been at the forefront of developments associated with both the teaching and research of law. Its strong sense of commitment to the fundamentals of law is combined with a commitment to innovation and the exploration of issues at the cutting edge.

The University of Sydney’s JD is the university’s graduate-entry law degree. It provides a world-class legal education that prepares students for the global and international environment in which they will provide legal advice.

To be eligible to apply to the Sydney Law School JD, you must have the following:
  • Completed an undergraduate degree;
  • Achieved a minimum cumulative grade point average (cGPA) of at least 3.0/4.0


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