New Zealander Robert made history in 2016 as the first person with a learning disability to be elected to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Scope: So Robert, you’re one of the pioneers of self advocacy in New Zealand and in the world. How did you get started?

Robert: Basically seeing what used to be done to people like us, and saying no to things where we’re meant to fall into line. But we didn’t. Well, I didn’t.
So I was always a rebel, and a stirrer, and I think you’ve got to be like that for things to change. But one man can’t change everything. We need other people behind us. You know, our supporters, families, other people with disabilities. It’s just everybody.

Can you tell us about your role now as an Independent Expert on the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD)?

We review and ask questions of the countries, the countries do a report, and civil society does a report from their perspective and from the people’s perspective. We also look at the Articles of the Convention. One of the articles the Committee is looking at, at the moment, is Article 19 – which is about living independently in the community. I do also have issues with the word ‘independence’ because can you truly be independent? What I mean by that is, I think it’s better to say co-independent because nobody can really live by themselves – we all need other human beings with us.

In the Convention it says people have a right to independence and I fully agree with that but I think when it comes to the lives of people with learning disability it needs to be explained a bit more. In the Convention it means being able to choose where you live, who you live with and how you want to live. We all have the right to live independently. If we need assistance to do this, we should have it. People should never be afraid to ask for assistance if they need it.

We like that term, ‘interdependence.’

Yeah, that’s the word I like to use. Interdependence.  We’re all interdependent on someone else throughout our lives, no matter what that is.  Article 19 is really important. In a lot of countries around the world there are only one or two options: to live in an institution or to live with your family.

Living with your family is fine and it is important in a lot of cultures around the world, but my point is – non-disabled people can leave home when they so desire, but most people with learning disability can’t do that without assistance. And everybody knows what I think about institutions – they are relics of the 17th and 18th century and they belong in the past.

For people out there with a disability who are thinking about speaking up, what would be your advice?

Please speak up and learn how to speak up, because it’s really important. Coming to this conference gives you a really good insight on what people can do, what people can achieve. You can do anything if you put your mind to it. There is no mountain high enough you cannot climb. I remember that thing that John F. Kennedy said way back in the 60s. “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” I think that to me that’s really important. We’ve got to look at people with disabilities as contributing to our societies and our communities.

Robert on his first day as a UNCRPD committee member at the United Nations in Geneva.