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Robert Martin: The advocate without limits

by Hilary Stace

Congratulations to New Zealander Robert Martin from Wanganui who has just been elected to an important United Nations position. He is now a member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the first person in the world with an intellectual/learning disability on that body. The Committee, which monitors how countries implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities CRPD, is made up of 18 disability experts from around the world. New Zealand ratified that Convention in 2008.

The election took place during the current Conference of States Parties to the CRPD, an annual meeting for representatives from governments and civil society from countries which are signatories to the CRPD.

Robert was the New Zealand government's nominee for the whole region and the campaign goes back to the days when Tariana Turia was Minister for Disability Issues. His bid has been strongly supported by the Disability Rights Commissioner Paul Gibson and People First New Zealand, the self-advocacy group which Robert helped found in the 1980s.

There is something very wise and calm about Robert. He is also a very generous person. This can be hard to understand when you hear his backstory. As a baby in the late 1950s he was removed from his family and raised in various institutions and foster homes. Life was harsh and abuse frequent. But, as he says, at least he could walk, talk and fight back, unlike some of the others. When Robert reached 15, the State tossed the angry teenager out of care. He had been denied not only human rights, but culture and identity. He often relates how as an institutionalised child he never heard of the All Blacks.

As a young man in the late 1970s he lived under the auspices of the NZ Society for the Intellectually Handicapped (which later became the IHC) where he led what is likely to have been the first ever strike by people with intellectual disability. They wanted to be treated as adults, make their own decisions, and be paid for their work. This activism became the basis of the People First self-advocacy movement in New Zealand. Robert’s leadership potential was noticed and nurtured by the head of the IHC JB Munro and others, and he became a local and international self-advocate.

He spoke at the United Nations during the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as a representative of the NGO, Inclusion International. He was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit and became the first inductee into the Attitude Hall of Fame. His 2014 biography by John McRae, Becoming a Person, has recently been translated into Japanese.

Robert and Cindy Johns from People First have been in New York for the last couple of weeks doing last minute campaigning. From there he has been following the story of Ashley Peacock, a victim of modern institutionalisation. Robert’s new achievement seems to have been, not surprisingly, widely supported. It is sad that we haven’t heard much about it in the media. Attitude TV have sent a tiny team of two to cover the election.

Robert was a keen sportsman and remains a dedicated follower of sports. So it would be great if the ‘stadium of four million’ which Helen Clark hoped would support her UN nomination, congratulated Robert on this latest achievement.

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