By Professor Ron McCallum
Ron McCallum AO is Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Sydney, the first totally blind person to be appointed to a full professorship at any university in Australia. He has been chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Geneva, has received a Centenary Medal for his work, and was the 2011 Senior Australian of the Year.
Ron believes he’s fortunate to have been born in an era where technology and social progress have made his achievements possible. Through his reflections on his childhood, we glimpse the much more hostile world he remembers, and can be thankful, like him, for the one we now enjoy.
But as well, we see his mother’s commitment to helping him live a normal life, and the incredible strength of character he showed from an early age. I think these things also contributed greatly to his success. This is a great start to a profound and insightful memoir.
In the year of my birth, the lives of the blind and visually impaired in Australia were much harder than they are today. The few who reached the heights of professional employment, such as lawyers and teachers, had mostly gone blind as the result of an accident or injury sustained during the Second World War; they had received their initial education while they were still sighted.
A number of blind people taught music, but most of those blind from birth were confined to sheltered workshops or to assembly jobs or roles as telephonists working the old-fashioned switchboards.
After all, since we blind people could not read print, clerical jobs were unavailable to us at that time.
I was born prematurely in Melbourne in 1948, when my mother was forty years old. Because my arrival into the world was between eight and ten weeks early, my breathing was laboured and I was placed in a humidicrib and given pure oxygen. The outer shell of these humidicribs was made mainly of perspex, a material that had been used to manufacture the transparent canopies of fighter-plane cockpits during the Second World War, which had just ended.
Initially weighing three pounds two ounces, I lay in the foetal position in my survivor capsule and breathed in oxygen, while my mum and the caring staff watched over me and monitored my progress. What was not then fully appreciated was that the eye is one of the last organs to develop in vitro. Pure oxygen is far too strong for the developing eye, and consequently, like so many other premature babies at that time, I survived but I lost my sight. This condition is known as retrolental fibroplasia (RLF), or retinopathy of prematurity. Since the mid-1950s, with greater medical knowledge and much more careful oxygen monitoring, it has become a rare condition, certainly in developed countries such as Australia.
My birth was obviously a traumatic event for my parents. I think that my father never really accepted me. I do not remember him ever picking me up or holding me close. He certainly made little attempt to foster a father–son bond with me. Even now, I can’t really guess what was going on in his mind-either with me or my brothers. My blindness seemed to make me something less than whole in his eyes. Did he see it in some strange way as undermining his manhood? In many cultures, especially in the past, children disabled at birth are perceived as being punishment for a parental wrong. Did my dad feel this type of stigma?
On the other hand, my mother was determined that I would survive, entire and whole. She came to the Royal Women’s Hospital every day for two months, just to sit by my humidicrib and to be with me. I am sure that her presence greatly assisted my survival.
I was my parents’ third child. My diminutive mother gave birth to three boys -Ted, Max and me – in the space of three years and one month. No doubt, she must have found herself very busy. By the time of my birth, the family had moved into a two-bedroom Housing Commission home in Raynes Park Road, Hampton, which is a bayside suburb of Melbourne. There were then no paved footpaths, and the major shops were more than a kilometre away.
To go shopping, Mum had to pack us three boys into the stroller and set off for a brisk walk. We didn’t own a car, nor did we have a telephone, but this was hardly unusual in young post-war families like ours. Dad worked at the General Post Office in downtown Melbourne, and on occasion he did shift work.
After my birth, I am almost certain that my parents broke off sexual relations altogether, and the strain within the family at times became acute. Even before I was born, Dad had been violent towards my mother, usually when drunk. I cannot know whether this violence or family stress played a part in inducing my premature birth; it is something on which I do not wish to dwell. At this remove, it no longer matters – I was born.
While Dad and I were never close, I was still too young at the time of his death in 1962 to learn much about his life. I do know that his marriage to my mother was his second, and that it was his first family that had kept him out of the First World War. Dad’s first wife bore him their first child – a son – in 1913, then another two sons and one daughter. I suspect that it was Dad’s remorse about staying at home the first time round that led him to volunteer for service at the beginning of the Second World War. Many young men lied and put their age up in order to enlist, whereas my father pretended he was younger than he actually was.
We three boys knew that Dad had children from a prior marriage: this was not something that was hidden from us. When we were small, I vaguely remember his son Lloyd visiting us with his wife and children. These half-siblings were very much older than us and we treated them more like uncles and aunts. I have stronger memories of Dad’s daughter, Jean, whom we called Aunty Jean.
When she came around, she would say, ‘Got a kiss for your Aunty Jean!’ At the age of seven or eight, kissing ‘aunties’ was not high on my priority list.
Dad served as a soldier in the Middle East, but he was invalided out in about 1942. I know nothing of these details. By that time, he was an alcoholic. There was an eighteen-year age gap between my parents: Dad was born in 1890 and Mum in 1908. They married in Melbourne on 6 June 1943. Although I know little about how they met, both came to the union with some personal baggage. It is fair to say that theirs was not a happy relationship.
It is said that the effects of war flow down to the succeeding generations, and my brothers and I saw the truth of that. Dad’s violence consisted of swearing at and pushing Mum, sometimes knocking her to the floor. I was terrified, especially as a toddler and small child. To make things worse, I couldn’t see what was going on. These memories remain distressing for me, ghosts on which I do not care to dwell.
Although I don’t remember it in great detail because I was barely three years old, my brothers used to talk about one occasion when my father took an axe to one of the bedroom doors and we all fled to a neighbour’s house. The police were called, although in those days perpetrators of domestic violence were generally let off with a warning. This saga was told and retold over the years among us three brothers as though it were some sort of classic rescue folktale.
I do remember, when I was about six, pushing Dad on his legs and telling him not to hit Mum. But he just swatted me away, in what for him was a reasonably gentle fashion.
As I sit here, the memories come flooding back. I recall feeling the bruises on Mum’s elbow after he pushed her over. I remember touching the part of Mum’s scalp where Dad had pulled out a hunk of her fine hair. Clearly he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his military service in the war, for which he never sought or received help, but of course that is hardly an excuse for his behaviour.
In those days, domestic violence was swept under the carpet. I am sure that our neighbours knew that Dad was violent towards Mum. However, it was an unwritten convention in that era that what went on behind closed doors was not interfered with or even discussed. As we grew older my father’s health declined and he was less capable of violent behaviour.
Mum had known several blind people before I came along, which helped her cope more easily than my father with the challenges I faced. She insisted on me behaving ‘normally’-for example, she would scold me if I raised my voice unnecessarily to be understood. This is what many blind people do, making them rather noisy to be around. Mum made it clear that I had to learn to survive and to thrive in a world of sighted people.
I hear you wondering, ‘When did you realise that not being able to see made you different from others?’ I don’t quite know how to answer this question. I must have had some knowledge, even before the age of two, that I could not do some things that others were able to do. To begin with, ‘they’ had something that prevented them from falling over, while I fell over far too often.
One memory stands out for me. Just before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, when I was four years old, Mum was reading a story to us three boys. She was explaining the pictures to Ted and Max; I think the pictures may have been of jewels or crowns or the pageant – I don’t quite remember. I put up my hands to touch the book, but of course I couldn’t feel the picture. Mum said, ‘Remember, darling, that you can’t see – so you can’t see the pictures in this book and you can’t see the printed words on its pages.’
I think this memory stuck because I loved the stories Mum read to me. Her words cut into my consciousness. To think that when I grew up I wouldn’t be able to read stories seemed terrible to me. I still think that one of the worst things about being blind is not being able to read the printed word with my eyes. Certainly, by the age of four I knew what seeing was about, at least in part. I knew that I couldn’t see and would never be able to see.
Mum ensured that we three brothers treated one another equally. I remember joining in their games, even the ones I perhaps should not have. On one occasion we all climbed onto the shed in our back garden-it was a little more than a metre and a half high. One by one we jumped off to demonstrate our prowess and bravado. I can remember Max saying to me: ‘Of course you can-just jump,’ and so I did.
I am pleased that my family was not over-protective and that they encouraged me to take risks. I say this in spite of the inevitable injuries that followed. One afternoon, when playing with my brothers and other children, I slid down a bank on some open land near our house, which left me with an impressive scar on my right buttock, courtesy of a misplaced brick on which I broke my fall.
When my second brother, Max, went to school and I was four, Mum enrolled me in an ordinary kindergarten for a term. My kindergarten teacher was very nice, but I do remember being confronted by the situation that there were some games in which I couldn’t participate. However, being in a class with ‘ordinary’ children broadened my horizons-quite literally as I was no longer confined to our house and yard.
Of course, Mum taught me how to go to the toilet and how to dress myself, in the same way as she schooled my big brothers. I also learned to tie up my shoes after a fashion. Even today, tying shoelaces up tightly doesn’t come easily to me. I’m not sure why, but this kind of fine-motor movement has always posed challenges for me.
The mention of shoelaces and trembling fingers evokes for me cold wintry days in Melbourne. Our house, like most in Melbourne at that time, didn’t have central heating. There was a fireplace, where we burned wood, and a small electric radiator heater. I can remember getting half-dressed under the bedclothes to combat the frosty mornings. We also used hot-water bottles on freezing nights to warm our beds and toast our chilly toes. The coldness was accentuated by the fact that we didn’t have hot water in the home. There was a gas bath heater to heat up the bath and shower water, but to wash dishes in the sink meant that we had to boil the kettle.
Many years later, one of the very first things I did when I began to earn money, was to pay for a hot-water service for the family home. Even today, I never ever take hot water for granted. I still find it a bit of a miracle to have piping hot water come straight out of a tap.
Like many other post-war families of modest means, it was many years before we acquired a refrigerator. Instead, the ice-man came and delivered cold blocks of ice, which we put in the ice-chest to keep things cool. Nor did we possess a washing machine. Instead we used a gas copper to wash our clothes. I remember feeling the stick with which Mum used to churn the clothes in the hot water. And then there was the complex task of wringing out the clothes through what was called a wringer: two rather lethal rollers that could suck in careless fingers and hands, and squash them flat.
Of course, in those far-off days, disposable nappies had not been invented. The housework of sixty years ago, almost all of which was done by women, was hard and gruelling. We children benefited from Mum’s efforts, perhaps without appreciating the human cost that she bore.
Born at the Right Time is published by Allen & Unwin (ISBN 9781760875015 / eBook 9781760870416). You can purchase it in electronic braille, DAISY and large print formats from ReadHowYouWant, and the eBook edition available from the main eBook retailers is in an accessible format.