Exorcising demons of a damaged past

TRUE LOVE: Robert Martin and his wife Lynda.

TRUE LOVE: Robert Martin and his wife Lynda.

A traumatic forceps birth is the most  likely cause of Robert Martin's intellectual disability. His eye was permanently damaged, his delicate head squashed, bruised and battered. Doctors would say it was "mental retardation" and advise his mother, as was the common thinking in 1957,  the best course of action was to send him away and forget about him.

That child, along with countless others, was kept in some of New Zealand's most notorious institutions, where he was physically, emotionally and sexually abused. The nicest things anyone called him were "difficult" or "challenging" and he grew into an angry young man. Despite society's best efforts to forget he existed, Martin went on to make huge changes in the lives of people with disabilities, including making an address to the United Nations on human rights issues. 

Today, he is a happy 57-year-old man who lives with his wife in Whanganui. Today, thanks to much of Martin's activism, they both have the same rights as anyone else.

Becoming a Person has become a voice for many people with disabilities.

Becoming a Person has become a voice for many people with disabilities.

Martin has an intellectual disability and he is the subject of a biography called Becoming a Person by John McRae.

Martin says telling his story exorcised demons of the past and will be invaluable to educate people on what life inside an institution was really like.

At the age of just 18 months, he was taken to a North Island institution called the Kimberley Centre. The boys in Kimberley had a shared pool of clothing, no possessions to call their own. He recalls crying, being fed and helped to change but he can't remember being cuddled, kissed or shown any affection.

Once or twice a year, he was allowed to return home but he had virtually no relationship with his parents or sister. He was beaten with a dog leash, a broom handle, a jug cord. Aged 5, he was sent to another part of Kimberley, a villa with boys like him. This time he was assigned his own clothes. Cameron House had a more progressive manager and life was somewhat improved but he was growing into an angry young man. In foster care, he was punished by being made to kneel on a wood pile for two-hour stretches.

At another institution, he misbehaved and the head of that hostel summoned him to be disciplined. The man put his hands down Martin's pants. In the book, it says: "All I knew was that I was bad and the man touching me was there to take care of me and he must be allowed to do what he was doing."

Little wonder, then, that he calls institutions "places of abuse" but he refuses to blame his mother for giving him away.

"It was society that put us in those places," he says on the phone from his Whanganui home. 

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"We did nothing wrong so why should we have been put away out of view? 

"The only people that are put away like that are ones who have done something really bad, like prison. But I was only a baby. How could I have done anything that bad?"

They were told when to go to bed and what pyjamas to wear. The women were not allowed to wear makeup, perfume or earrings. No-one was allowed to shower themselves. These were all things Martin later helped to overturn.

In 1972 he turned 15 and the state was done with him. He returned to Whanganui where he stole and fought but he also met an IHC worker called Alison Campbell who helped him stand up for his rights and channel his anger into activism.

Things started small. At one point he rallied fellow farm workers to strike over unfair conditions, including being made to get up at 5am for an 8am start. Another protest saw them fight against travelling in vans with IHC markings. The logo featured a stick figure with a star on its forehead and appeared to encourage people to stare and make faces at them while the vans were stopped at the lights. Campbell helped them into community clubs and organisations. A world of sport and music opened up for Martin, who had previously been unaware of either of those things.

"I was a bit of a rebel. I didn't toe the party line. I wanted to be who I wanted to be. I disagreed and I stood up for things," he says.

"It's about fighting for equality. We're not above other people but we're not below them either. We're just different.

"People don't know what it was like to come out of somewhere so locked away that you didn't know about the Beatles, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Kennedy or Martin Luther King. Imagine not knowing about the All Blacks? You have no sense of belonging. I didn't even find out about music until the 1970s."

He was labelled by some as a troublemaker. Others saw potential leadership qualities.

"A lot of support has gone into me," he says. "They saw what I could bring and harnessed it to the positive side, not the negative side."

He is aware Becoming a Person doesn't solely belong to him but also to his friends and people with disabilities who have rights today. He remembers a woman coming up to him after one talk and saying "thank you, you speak for my son". 

The book tells multiple stories of success in the face of criticism. Years of speaking up took him overseas on the international speaking circuit, where he became involved with international committees and self-advocacy and he met more inspirational people.

He speaks against genetic engineering of babies. He tells an audience: "You can't cure us, you can't fix us. We will always be here. We are part of humanity."

He implores society to be accepting of intellectually challenged children, especially those with high needs so as not to isolate and disable whole families.

And like every good story, there is love.

In the mid-1980s he met his wife-to-be, Lynda. The couple have been married for more than 20 years.

"We're just people and we need your help, support and understanding. I've had all these things. People really cared for me and made me realise it's about what you can do, not about what you can't – even people with really high needs.

"Don't shy away from us. We don't bite."

Becoming a Person: The biography of Robert Martin  by John McRae. Craig Potton Publishing RRP: $34.99

 - Your Weekend


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