Martine Abel-Williamson is an influential change maker, heavily involved in advocacy for the disabled community. Her skills have been integral in effecting positive change for disabled groups place in society; from with work with the Auckland Council’s Disability Action Plan to ACC’s internationally referenced work on health quality and safety, and her everyday influence behind-the-scenes in the disability sector.
“I really love it,” says Martine, “every time I have an opportunity to advocate for something, or campaign for change, or to question why something’s happening a specific way, it is really empowering.”
“But,” she continues, “The factor that stands in most people’s way is expectations by society.”
Leaning on both her work and lived experience she explains how big a part the wider community can play in holding people back; “Then you have low expectations of yourself. It’s almost like gradually breaking someone’s spirit, people won’t realise their potential because they won’t even realise they have potential.”
This outlook has driven Martine to push for equality for much of her life. “As a child I always thought I would grow up and become something, I never thought that I could have such outward facing opportunities, opportunities to influence things about me. I’ve super outlived my expectations of myself. Instead of just making sure I live an independent dignified life, I can now support others to do that and it’s just onward and upward hopefully, I can’t see it ending soon.”
"I often feel incredibly proud of Martine, I support her in whatever way I can."
Martine and her husband, Gary live in Auckland. Striving to live as normal a life as they can, the only difference they believe exists is that they’re both blind.
They cook together, “Gary and I love entertaining from home” she says, “not that we don’t like going out, but often going out is so much more planning. We don’t do a lot of chef cooking, but we do a lot of prep.”
Gary used to have sight; “As I was growing up as a child I had terrific vision but then it shrank like a tunnel. When I was diagnosed I didn’t take it very well. For quite a significant amount of time I was not willing to accept my vision was gone. I kept driving my car right up to my early thirties.”
Now, he backs his wife in whatever she does, “I often feel incredibly proud of Martine, I support her in whatever way I can.”
Martine was born in Namibia and grew up in South Africa, and in an apartheid era, life was more difficult having been diagnosed with vision impairment at 5. “Most of us got sent to special schools” she recalls, “That was very hard for my mum to send me 2,000 kilometres from home. For two years she sent me cassettes on tapes so I could hear the letter privately. so I could learn to read and write, then she helped me learn braille.”
She regularly visits her mother, one of her greatest supporters, now in a retirement home with type 2 Dementia. “Mum was the person who believed in me right from the start, she always gave me the impression I can do whatever I want to.”
That support spurred Martine through university; “I studied psychology, majoring in psychology and criminology then I did my honours in psychology.” Even when she received push-back from lecturers; “I had more than one lecturer challenging me about how I would be able to do counselling and psychology when I couldn’t maintain eye contact. I was very angry because I wasn’t the first blind psychologist in the world, it’s just a mindset that people had.”
So Martine set about to change those mindsets and in honour of her success in that quest, she received the 2018 Making a Difference Attitude Award and the Supreme Award for her services as an advocate for disability.