A New Zealander who suffered a brain injury at birth and spent his childhood in institutions has become the first person with an intellectual disability to be elected to serve on the U.N.'s committee dealing with people with disabilities.
Robert Martin was among nine new members elected Tuesday to the committee for a three-year term at the ninth conference on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The committee is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the convention's goals.
Martin, 59, is a leader in New Zealand's disability community and is a professional evaluator of disability support services funded by the government. He plays an advisory role for People First New Zealand, an advocacy group for persons with learning disabilities.
Martin said he and others with disabilities have shown they can contribute to the implementation of the convention goals.
"Now the hard work begins," he told reporters after the vote.
The U.N. General Assembly adopted the 32-page convention by consensus in December 2006, culminating a campaign spearheaded by disability rights activists like Martin and the governments of New Zealand, Ecuador and Mexico.
The convention, which has been signed by 164 of the 193 member nations, is a blueprint to end discrimination and exclusion of the physically and mentally disabled in education, jobs and everyday life. It requires countries to guarantee freedom from exploitation and abuse for the disabled, while protecting rights they already have — such as voting rights for the blind and wheelchair-accessible buildings.
The convention guarantees that the disabled have the inherent right to live on an equal basis with the able-bodied and requires countries to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantee equal legal protection. Countries must also ensure the equal right of the disabled to own and inherit property, to control their financial affairs, and to privacy over their personal lives.
Nicky Wagner, New Zealand's minister of disability issues and her country's delegate to the conference, said the convention is stronger because of the work that Martin put in on language that was ultimately included in the document.
"The final outcome was richer as a result of his input," she said.
A biography of Martin, "Becoming a Person," recounted how he suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse during a childhood spent in large institutions and foster homes. He eventually learned to stand up for his rights and decided to make his own life choices. He now lives in his own home in a small town in New Zealand with his wife Lynda and has become an advocate for the right of people with disabilities to live independently.
The nine new members of the 18-person Committee for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities were chosen from 18 candidates. The new members, who include academics and other experts on various disabilities, replace those whose terms expire at the end of the year and will serve until 2020.