Robert Martin wanted a leader that looked and sounded like him, and when there wasn’t one, he decided to fill the gap.
Having spent more than 30 years advocating for the rights of disabled New Zealanders, Sir Robert has been made a knight companion in the New Year’s Honours list.
He has a learning disability and spent much of his childhood inside institutions and living with foster parents.
Sir Robert said he was both proud and humbled to receive a knighthood for services to people with disabilities.
“I couldn’t have got where I’ve got to without the assistance and also the support I’ve received over the many years from other people with learning disabilities.”
It was his concern for those around the world who still did not have a voice that drove him to be an advocate.
That drive took Sir Robert right to the United Nations, where in 2018, he became the first person with learning disabilities to chair a meeting during a session.
He served on the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for the 2017-2020 term, and was seeking re-election.
“In a lot of places around the world, people with learning disabilities are still much invisible…” he said.
“People with learning disabilities are part of our world, part of our communities and part of our societies.”
Sir Robert said he had been advocating for disabled New Zealanders for as long as he could remember, because there was never anyone else to do it.
He said while New Zealand had role models like Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir Colin Meads, they were all-abled.
Sir Robert wanted a leader that looked and sounded like him, and when there wasn’t one, he decided to fill the gap.
“That’s why I fought tooth and nail for the likes of People First, the only organisation in New Zealand that speaks for, and on behalf of people with learning disabilities.”
New Zealand, he said, had come along way in regards to disability relations and successive governments had made a point of hearing disabled voices.
The Disability Action Plan was a huge milestone, because it had been the brainchild of lawmakers, politicians and at least seven disability groups, Sir Robert said.
But the country still had a long way to go, especially when it came to disabled children in the education system.
He said they were sometimes at risk of falling through the cracks, which was not good enough.
“Children have a right to have an education. No ifs’. No buts’. No maybes’.”
This article was originally published appears with the permission of Radio New Zealand (RNZ).