‘I might be the first – I don’t want to be the last’

When he returns to the United Nations in New York next month, Sir Robert Martin will carry his country’s highest honour. He was made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the New Year Honours for services to people with disabilities.

It’s another first for him. He is the first New Zealander with an intellectual disability to be knighted. He was also the first to be elected to a UN Human Rights Treaty Body in 2017, and the first to chair a meeting within a UN session in 2018.

“I might be the first person with an intellectual disability, but I don’t want to be the last. It seems that I am the first person to do this and to do that, but for me it’s making a way for other people to follow,” Sir Robert says.

“I was extremely humbled. It’s not for me, it’s for people with disabilities who got me where I am and the people who assisted me over the years,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it without the help of People First and IHC.

“It’s also for the people who are not with us, who never got a chance to tell their stories.”

Sir Robert, who is married to Lynda and lives in Whanganui, says he still feels the presence of the people who he lived with in some of New Zealand’s grimmest institutions. “I do because those people are really important to me. I have never forgotten my roots.”

In November he gave evidence to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care about his own experiences of abuse and how he was made to feel he was nobody.

Sir Robert says he regards education as one of the major issues facing people with intellectual disabilities and he is right behind IHC’s work in this area. “People are still falling through gaps. Education is not a feel-good thing; it’s a basic human right. Everybody has a right to an education – to be assisted to be who they can be.”

He says disabled people need to take their place in the world and show what they are capable of. “Still people are invisible around the world. I often ask, where are the people with learning disabilities?”

Sir Robert has been involved with the self-advocacy movement for people with learning disabilities for more than 30 years. He is a Life Member of People First New Zealand Ngā Tāngata Tuatahi, the national disabled persons organisation, originally set up by IHC.

He is serving a four-year term as an independent expert on the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and plans to stand for re-election this year. Sir Robert has held roles within Inclusion International and was National Self Advocacy Advisor and Trainer for IHC New Zealand between 1991 and 2010.


Photo caption: Sir Robert Martin KNZM – disability activist and one of New Zealand’s newest knights.


This story was published in Community Moves. The magazine is posted free to all IHC members.

Read the full issue of Community Moves online here.