In November 2010, Wanganui Chronicle reporter Lin Ferguson profiled a local activist who was challenging the world's views. This week, Robert Martin made history by being elected to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at UN headquarters in New York.


Robert Martin's a bulky chap with a thatch of reddish hair, navy blue eyes and a grin that would melt the hardest heart.

This 57-year-old is a determined man with a fierce love for his fellow man.

He believes in justice for all and never wavers.

He also believes everyone has the right to live as a human being and choose their own path.

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Robert remembers only too well the days when he was labelled a "mental retard'' and, because of it, had no life and had nothing to call his own.

At 18, he was expected to believe in Father Christmas. To call his caregiver mum.
"I never did, because I had my own mum. You only have one mum.''

He was lined up regularly with fellow disabled people at the Wanganui IHC centre, where he lived, and was handed his standard-issue clothes - shoes, trousers, shirts, jersey, jacket, pyjamas - even his underwear.

Robert Martin has been leading the way in advocacy for the intellectually disabled. Photo / Stuart Munro
Robert Martin has been leading the way in advocacy for the intellectually disabled. Photo / Stuart Munro

"We all wore the same clothes and they were all the same colour.''

Then there was haircut day, when they were all lined up again (males and females) and given identical haircuts.

"We all looked exactly the same - horrible.''

Initially, he was not paid for working on the IHC farm.

They were made to get up at 5am each day, even though they didn't start work until 8am and their workplace was just minutes away.

For Robert, his life as a disabled person began when he was just 18 months old.

His mother had a difficult birth, he said. "She didn't see me for three days. I was big and very bruised from a forceps delivery.''

As a baby, he didn't make his milestones and was very slow.

"It took me five or six hours to drink a bottle.''

Concerned, his parents asked the family doctor what they could do for their son. Put him in a home, the doctor told them.

And Robert went into full-time care at Kimberley Psychopaedic Hospital (closed in 1996), near Levin.

His life was structured, regulated and gated from then on.

Somehow, though, even as a young boy, Robert believed there had to be something better than being just another number, another mouth to feed, in the institution.

Robert Martin picture in 2012. Photo / Stuart Munro
Robert Martin picture in 2012. Photo / Stuart Munro

His frustration at institutional life manifested itself in angry physical outbursts, lashing out and fighting to vent a deep sadness escalating within.

At 11, he went to Campbell Park School in the South Island, between Duntroon and Kurow - a school for boys with intellectual disabilities.

"By then I'd had enough of people and I only loved animals.''

School life, besides his regular dust-ups with the other boys, introduced him to the power of playing sport.

"I played everything - rugby, soccer, cricket - and loved it.''

His sporting prowess during those years was such that Robert began seriously thinking about life, what it meant and how maybe one day he could change it.

He was captain of the New Zealand soccer team at the Special Olympics in 1991.

Even with success, Robert never forgot the abuse from some staff members, the gnawing unhappiness and endless fights with the other boys.

He admits that even today there was some appalling treatment he and many of his fellows were forced to endure.

The day he turned 15 was a veritable red letter day.

It meant he was finally turned loose from the fulltime live-in confines of the IHC institutions.

"I was allowed to live at home in Wanganui with my parents.''

But even though he lived at home for three years, it never really worked.

"Well there was no bond. We had never really bonded at all, never had the chance.''

But he's never forgotten the solid advice from his dad.

"Always stand on your own two feet and always stand up for yourself.''

By that time, Robert had admitted that not only was he still fighting at every opportunity he had also developed some very "taking'' ways.

Robert Martin, right, is filmed in Victoria Ave by Attitude Pictures producer Emma Calveley, freelance cameraman Sean Loftin and sound operator Dave Bonny.
Robert Martin, right, is filmed in Victoria Ave by Attitude Pictures producer Emma Calveley, freelance cameraman Sean Loftin and sound operator Dave Bonny.

His love for music and thirst for knowledge meant he snaffled records from music shops and encyclopedias (one by one) from the library and hoarded them in his room.

If it hadn't been for a new IHC social worker in 1983, Robert might never have understood the error of his ways or taken his fight for disabled people to the world.

By this time, he was working on the IHC farm in Turoa Rd with a bunch of good mates. A newly appointed boss at the farm aggravated his workers to the point where they revolted and went on strike, led by Robert.

"The guy had no idea how to treat his workers and we'd had enough. 'What can we do?' my mates said. 'We can go on strike,' I said. So we did.''

The next day, when the boss called the orders, "I yelled 'tools down'.''

The strike lasted one day and, led by Robert, the workers aired their grievances.

They won pay of $1 a day from then on and free morning and afternoon teas. "It was a start.''

However, the next vital step for Robert was to learn how to do things properly. This was when Alison Campbell (the new social worker) stepped in.

She became Robert's mentor and led him and his friends to change their lives and those of their disabled fellows.

Alison said this week she had to teach Robert and his friends to do things properly and not go in all guns blazing.

They formed the self-advocacy movement, the People First Group, for people with learning and intellectual disabilities, representing the rights of their fellows.

Because, even after leaving the institutions, while using disability services Robert still experienced and saw staff behaviour that was abusive and demeaning.

Robert's book documents his transition from institutional life to international disability rights campaigner. Photo / Stuart Munro
Robert's book documents his transition from institutional life to international disability rights campaigner. Photo / Stuart Munro

"Well, I knew I was acting normally in a very abnormal environment. We were adults, not kids, and they needed to know this. Outside people needed to understand and see the way we were being treated.''

During this time, he met wife Lynda. "We met at a work skills workshop and got married soon after.''

During these years, Robert's work in advocacy and his leadership skills were becoming recognised and he soon became the spokesman and leader of disabled people.

Throughout the 1990s, he led the development of the modern self-advocacy movement within IHC (now IDEA services) and is currently the self-advocacy co-ordinator for IDEA Services.

He was also achieving accolades on an international level.

"Once I got going, it was important that I kept going. I really found the power of changing things and the power of working together - it was truly amazing.''

From 2003 to 2006, Robert was involved with the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

He has been a keynote speaker at many international conferences, which led to him travelling extensively around the world.

He headed a subcommittee at the UN and in 2008 delivered a keynote speech to hundreds of medical and business professionals in New York.

His work was recognised in 2008 by the New Zealand Government when he was awarded a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. He was also awarded a Paul Harris Fellowship by Rotary.

Robert's belief in his fellow disabled people is unswerving. "But it's time for me to step aside and let the young people come in. It's their time now,'' Robert says.