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Robert Martin, Kiwi advocate for the disabled, gets role at the UN

Friday 2 Dec 2016 5:00 a.m.

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Kiwi campaigner Robert Martin says he'll focus on ensuring people with disabilities are "recognised as true citizens of their countries" when he starts his four-year term with the United Nations (UN) next year.

He's the first person with a learning disability to be elected to the UN's Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and made a speech at Parliament this week to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

Mr Martin, who grew up in various state institutions, says he's "honoured and proud" to have been elected to the committee.

He says he grew up at a time when many disabled people were segregated from society.

"Many of us did not experience having a family or an education, so right from the start we were on the back foot for no fault of our own, we were left behind."

Now he wants to ensure that disabled people are fully included "because we have a lot to give, a lot to share, we're just like anybody else".

"I hope that disabled people are seen as real people, that they can make fantastic contributions to New Zealand society and to our communities."

He says education, employment, and healthcare are among the most important issues facing disabled people, and work needs to be done.

"To me, education is a basic human right, disabled children should be able to go to school alongside other children, provided with the right support and teachers that know how to teach them."

Many disabled people his age never got a chance to get a good education because of society's stigma against them.

"They were not able to be educated because people thought we couldn't be.

"We know better now, but still many disabled people are being left behind."

Mr Martin says disabled people are often invisible in discussions about employment, and they need to be given a chance to work in jobs that they enjoy. 

He says doctors and medical health professionals could be better trained to provide treatment and communicate with people with disabilities.

"Some of the health issues people with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities, face include a shorter life expectancy, increased risk of some medical conditions like dementia and epilepsy, and the risk of being exposed to medical procedures other people aren't."

Disability rights commissioner Paul Gibson says that "when Robert spoke, the world stopped and listened", and he has given disabled people "a voice at the highest places".

During his UN term, Mr Martin will spend two four-week periods in Geneva each year.

He'll help to oversee the rights of disabled people in the countries who have signed the Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons.

The UN's International Day of Persons with Disabilities will be celebrated on Saturday, December 3.

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