Advocate for disabled is still ‘giving back’
Sir Robert Martin pioneer for those with intellectual disabilities
The last Volunteer of the Month for this year is Sir Robert Martin KNZM, well known for his advocacy of people with disabilities and a member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
He is also patron of Special Olympics Whanganui.
The knighthood might give some idea of the value placed on his work, but while he has a mountain of accolades and the respect of all who have met him — and many who haven’t — it might come as a surprise that everything he has done for the rights of persons with disabilities has been completely voluntary.
Sir Robert Martin’s only paid job is delivering the Rivercity Press on Thursday mornings.
“It’s about giving back what the community has given me over the years,” he says.
And what has the community given him . . . eventually?
“I think, respect,” he says. Also the chance to have been involved in sports for a long time.
“I played soccer for all different teams . . . City, Aramoho, High School Old Boys, Castlecliff.
“I played cricket for Tech College Old Boys: they’re the first team that respected me for who I was.”
His wife, Lynda, has two brothers who played for the team.
“I’ve been married for 34 years next March,” he says.
Sir Robert is pretty pleased with what he has achieved, but it comes at the cost of all he went through to become who he is and whom he represents.
Aged 64, he was born at a time when a learning disability was more than a major disadvantage.
A difficult forceps birth left him with an intellectual impairment that affected his entire future.
“Mum wanted to find out what was wrong with me, but nobody would tell her the truth. A doctor told her, ‘He’s mentally retarded, so you should send him to Kimberley [Kimberley Mental Deficiency Colony, later renamed the Kimberley Centre)] and forget you ever had him’. That’s what it was like in those days.”
He was 18 months old when he went to Kimberley.
After years of institutions, including Lake Alice, and failed fostering, as well as stints at various primary schools in Whanganui, Robert ceased his formal education with no secondary schooling at all.
In 1972 he returned to Whanganui and got a job with the IHC. They first asked if he could read. He could. He worked with UEB, got a job at a mushroom farm in Tayforth Rd, and put together cardboard boxes for the Waxine factory. All that work was unpaid.
“Then I worked in the carpentry shop: I made tables, chairs and toys. I made concrete piles, canopies, garden sheds, all kinds of things. In 1976 I worked at the IHC farm in Turoa Rd.”
While he was there he advocated for one of his colleagues who complained about the treatment, and they eventually went on strike. A consequence of the strike action was actual pay for the workers. It was not much but Robert’s pleased with the result.
“We also got health and safety and holidays.”
He is fairly sure that People First, the self-advocacy group, stemmed from that sort of action. He was a part of that.
“That’s where all this began. I wanted people to see what it was like for us. They treated us like the eternal child all the time and didn’t think we could think for ourselves . . . I wanted to change that: that we could think, that we could do things. I see human rights as really important. We have the same rights as every other New Zealand citizen.”
It was not easy.
“While that was happening I tried to go for jobs,” he says.
He was unsuccessful, mostly because of his lack of formal education. It was up to him to educate himself.
“I went to the Whanganui Library and got all these books . . . for me it was about finding out about things.”
That included history and it fed his love of animals and everything about them. He also devoured material on rugby and he became a “rugby nut”.
“I met the 83 Lions and the 81 Springboks.”
He represented New Zealand in the Special Olympics and he coached the football team.
“In 1992 I got a scholarship to go to Perth, around people with learning disabilities in Australia. I did a full report on my findings. I thought that was the end of my overseas travel, but I was asked if I wanted to be involved in Inclusion International, but it wasn’t called that then.”
Through that he lectured on the rights of people with disabilities to governments and service providers everywhere. Robert says he has been to every continent except Antarctica. That led to his involvement with the United Nations.
“We had a parent who was president of Inclusion International. They had a grown-up child with a learning disability.
“We had a meeting in Beijing about whether we should have a convention for the rights of people with disabilities, because there wasn’t one, and it was a unanimous decision that we should. Then it was on to New York to discuss the things we needed.
“We wanted the same rights as every other person in the world that we live in.”
Don Mackay was New Zealand’s permanent representative to the United Nations and he was one of the leaders of the discussion. Robert acknowledges the part he played.
Sir Robert Martin’s biography Becoming a Person: the biography of Robert Martin tells his story and his innumerable achievements on behalf of those with a learning disability. It is a story too big for this article.
His work continues, in spite of his uncertain health. He says he is seeing results but he knows there is still so much more to do.
“Why do we segregate people with learning disabilities when they have done nothing wrong?
“Long after I’ve gone, there will still be work to do.”
He says they might have dismantled the large institutions, but there are still plenty of “miniinstitutions”, and that needs to be addressed.
“That comes under Article 19 of the Convention.”
Sir Robert has an office in Community House in Ridgway St. A plaque on the outside wall bears the UN logo and his name: Sir Robert Martin.
“I might be the first person with an intellectual disability on this committee, but I certainly don’t want to be the last.
“I often say, there’s nothing special about being special. There are no special jobs, there’s no special community. It’s about being ‘part of’.”
As Volunteer of the Month, Sandra Rickey, manager of Volunteer Whanganui presented him with a certificate, a badge and a $40 voucher from Mud Ducks cafe.