Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum AO has recently released his memoir, Born at the Right Time. The memoir offers readers a personal tour of McCallum's life. A tour guided by the disability rights movement and love for the law and life.
In some ways, this book tells the life experiences common to all of us: finishing school, university, employment, marriage and a family. You can stroll through these chapters with your Sunday brunch and find yourself relating to the milestones. At parts, you even feel like you are there with him, in his family home where domestic violence was commonplace in the early years, at the dinner party where he met his future wife Mary Crock and in the lounge room at 3 AM where he weeps after the birth of his first son. McCallum tells his story n precise detail and description. That precision is a natural talent he has honed over a lifetime of living with total blindness. McCallum tells a collection of tales where he has had to remember the finer details of events, routes, legal principles and correspondence. When reading these details, you take them for granted. Of course 12 August 1972 was a Saturday, and when he flew from Melbourne to Canada to study at Queen's University there was no inflight entertainment so he sat, listened, smelt and felt everything around him. I can barely remember what the weather was last month, nevermind what I did on a flight decades ago! But you soon become aware that the words that are painting the most colourful picture of how the events unfolded are direct from McCallum's memory.
As McCallum takes us through his life, we learn much more than the joy of getting married and having a family. We walk in his shoes as a totally blind man. We become privy to how the world smells, feels and behaves around him. We also learn how the evolution of technology has created independence for McCallum he never thought possible. In just 2013, the use of the Kurzweil National Federation of the Blind Reader app allows McCallum to read letters that arrive at the house or a menu if he dines alone [page 212].
It had not occurred to me before reading this book, how time-intense it would have been to complete a law degree and go on to hold eminent positions in the legal profession without being able to read words on a page. I have grown up in an age of technology where screen readers and dictation are quite advanced concepts and available to all. It reminds me how often there is so much going on behind the scenes to ensure people with disabilities can compete, survive and thrive in an abled-bodied world! McCallum remembers all those who read to him over the years to get him through his career ambitions. Again, a mark of his sense of precision and detail but also gratitude. The additional time it took to get through the material in this way was countered by McCallum's innate determination to succeed in the law. A quality he reflects most people with disability have:
"I think it is the case that we persons with disabilities often set ourselves superhuman challenges to demonstrate to everyone else that we are normal. The truth is, people, either accept us or do not accept us for what and who we are and, no matter how many activities we skilfully perform, these feats rarely change people's minds."
While it may be assumed that McCallum's success reflected all that he wanted out of life and his disability was never a hurdle he could not overcome. His memoir confesses that is not so,
"by my fourth year of university studies I began to think hard about what I might do after university. I really would have loved to have been a barrister and to appear in court on behalf of clients. However, I realised that my inability to read would be an enormous handicap. I could imagine my barrister opponents showering me with documents the last minute, which would put me at a great disadvantage. If I were studying law today, with all the information technology that is now available in the form of portable text readers, I am sure I would have become a barrister."
McCallum is humble and honest about how he thought he might be a participant in society over his life. He calls out many of the fears people with disabilities may face like not falling in love or not having a family. His honesty on these topics is imperative to his story but also to draw attention to the experience of those living with a disability.
Like many of his "brothers and sisters with disabilities", as he refers to other people with disability, McCallum's story cannot be told without reference to the rise of the disability rights movement. Throughout the book, McCallum shares times of segregated schooling for blind children, the deliberate avoidance of a career in basket weaving as had been the fate for many like him and some of the stranger reactions to his ordinary relationship with Mary Crock.
By the end of the book, we have learnt so much about being a blind person, the disability rights movement, international relations for disability rights and even labour law! But true to what is his life's work, McCallum ends the insightful memoir with an update on the current work of his children. Leaving me to think that even if you climb to the very top of your career, you will still be most proud of the people you have shared your life with.
Born at the Right Time is the perfect read for someone who doesn't live with a disability but wants to know more of the behind-the-scenes experience of what life takes. It is similarly affirming for a person who does live with a disability and has been faced with the steep hill of overcoming barriers in their careers and life.
Book Title: Born at the Right Time
Author: Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum AO
Publisher: Allen & Unwin (2019)
You can buy the book at your favourite bookstore or online (i.e. https://www.booktopia.com.au/born-at-the-right-time-ron-mccallum/prod9781760875015.html).