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Finding acceptance

Ronald McCallum and his wife Mary share a laugh before he receives an honorary degree during Friday's convocation ceremony for Queen's Law. (Photo by Bernard Clark) 

As he enters the elevator of Kingston Hall a few minutes before he is to receive an honorary degree, Ronald McCallum, a respected labour law expert from Australia, former dean of the University of Sydney School of Law and chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, asks a question: “Do they still use the bagpipes during the ceremony?”

After receiving an answer in the affirmative he is literally bouncing with excitement.

He honestly loves Queen's University.

There’s a good reason. Coming here changed his life.

Back in 1971 McCallum had earned a pair of bachelor degrees yet was unable to find a law school in Australia that would accept him as a graduate student. It wasn't a case of his marks not being good enough. In fact, he was exceptional.

Undaunted, McCallum would turn his search abroad. 

What he found was Queen's.

What he found was a law school that would accept a blind student.

It was the start that he needed.

“In 1971 I received a letter from the late Bernie Adell and he said that Queen’s would welcome me and he thought I could find enough readers,” he says.

Back then, the books he needed had to be read onto tape and McCallum could then listen to all kinds of legal literature. He did find readers – scores of them. Many were fellow law students. Others were from across Queen’s. Catherine Carter, the wife of his labour law professor Don Carter, would read to him while her toddler was asleep, McCallum recalls with a smile.

And then there were his “boys.” During the summer of 1973 the other students returned home. McCallum would have to look elsewhere for volunteer readers. What he got was a group of inmates from Collins Bay Penitentiary. They were happy to help out. They had plenty of time they told him.

Upon earning his Master of Laws, McCallum returned home where he would become a law lecturer at his alma mater Monash University and would eventually become the first blind person to be appointed to a full professorship in any subject at an Australian university.

“At Queen’s I grew up,” he says. “I learned the tools of the trade of academia – teaching and writing – and I think it gave me the confidence, having been successful at Queen’s, to go on and try other things. I taught law in Australia for 40 years. I became dean of Sydney Law School. I wouldn’t have become dean, I wouldn’t have become an academic, had I not done this graduate work at Queen’s. It gave me a foothold on the academic ladder.”

But there would be more heights to reach in his amazing career.

Being dean helped propel him to the United Nations where he could help others with disabilities around the world. He has stood up for those who all too often have no voice.

The position, he says, has also been an opportunity to continue to learn, seeing how different people from around the world think, and not just about disabilities.

As he received his honorary degree on Friday from the one university that gave him a chance, McCallum called on the graduating Queen’s Law students to make the most of the time they have, to take chances, to seize opportunities as he did.

“We only pass this way once,” he says. “It’s not a rehearsal. Leave this world better off than when you started.”