The Malta Independent 15 April 2024, Monday
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A mission he cannot hear, a mission he cannot see

Marika Azzopardi Tuesday, 19 November 2013, 08:30 Last update: about 10 years ago

“One day a friend took me out for a walk in a park. As we walked, he began to describe the ducks on the pond, the birds in the trees, the flowers in the flowerbeds. I listened to his words and then told him... ‘I can see snow on the trees.’ My statement flustered him somewhat and he told me... “I cannot see any snow on the trees!” I quietly (and jokingly) replied... “Then you must be blind!”

The funny episode happened many years ago to Fr Cyril Axelrod, a man with a mission he has been taking around the world throughout his life. As I head for my interview with this deaf-blind man, I realise I have never come across such a personality in all my 18 years of journalism. Then again, you don’t come across people like Fr Cyril very often. I am intrigued about meeting a man who has made a mission of his disabilities in more ways than one.

Born in 1942 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Cyril Axelrod was born deaf. His parents were at a loss on how to educate him, and although they were Orthodox Jews, they accepted to send him to a Catholic school for the deaf. Needless to say, he became influenced by the Roman Catholic teachings and became a Catholic in his early twenties. He eventually became a priest and was ordained in 1970.

He has travelled the world on varied pastoral visits inspiring by example. Notwithstanding the fact that South Africa was deeply apartheid, he succeeded in setting up a multi-racial school to teach deaf children in Soweto, a hostel for the deaf and homeless in Pretoria, and an employment centre in Cape Town. Only nine years into his priesthood, and still in his thirties, he was suddenly diagnosed with Usher Syndrome, a condition that caused him to lose his sight gradually until he was totally blind by age 58. Yet, all this did not stop him from fulfilling his mission.

Fr Cyril speaks to me with the help of two close assistants – Simon Chan; an interpreter he met in Hong Kong, and Hester Holliday from London, a woman who was Fr Cyril’s pupil in childhood. They set up a seating arrangement so that Fr Cyril knows where everybody else is sitting and can turn in his seat to address whoever he is communicating with. If I succeed in blocking out the interpreter’s English words, I can actually lip read what Fr Cyril says and add this to the word sounds he forms with his mouth to understand entire sentences at a time.

“This is my fourth visit to Malta and I am here to help the Maltese learn how to appreciate the gift of disability. My aim is to help people remain open-minded towards the needs of the disabled. I am also here to work on a project to create training courses that will increase understanding of the deaf/blind disability. Through the Father Cyril Axelrod Foundation (CALF), I can do much to help Dar tal-Providenza expand and develop its services. I also want to help support the Maltese government in increasing services for the deaf-blind.”

I ask him to go back to his childhood and try and recall when he first felt different from other children. Fr Cyril tells me, “As a very small boy, I realised I could not communicate with others like they could communicate with each other. I could not hear them, so I always kept quiet.” Was he angry at the world when he found out he was losing another vital sense and going blind? Fr Cyril immediately signs a ‘no’ with his hands. “Mine was progressive blindness and I was told there was no medical solution. I only found out about it at around age 38. I was not angry – but I was very shocked. I was traumatized by the news but only for the short term. I slowly accepted my predicament thanks to my faith in God. I knew God could use my condition to help me pass on a message of hope to others.” 

His life changed dramatically with blindness. His naturally patient disposition helped him take time to re-learn several things. “I learnt to feel with my hands, to touch things, which helps me know the place I am in. I have learnt to do things, one thing at a time. I have learnt to cook food for myself.” This triggers off the memory of an episode which Fr Cyril recounts with glee. “I was cooking at home, chicken. It was coming along nicely and smelt lovely. I couldn’t wait to taste it. Suddenly the doorbell rang and I went to open the door. The man outside was a fireman and I was shocked – what happened? Where’s the fire? He came inside to check and found that I had dropped some oil on the stove and, as it burnt, it had created much smoke that set off the fire alarm. I had not seen the smoke and had not heard the alarm, so I apologised for the trouble caused. As the fireman left, he reassured me that the chicken still smelt delicious…!”

What about dependence on others? Doesn’t disability put pressure on others? He explains, “I go through many experiences and am aware of my personal difficulties and struggles. I share with people and this helps them understand how they can support the disabled and how to find different ways of offering proper support. People often feel scared of helping the disabled because they do not know how. I work to free people from this fear.”

Currently travelling around the world to promote his autobiography entitled “And the Journey Begins”, wherein he writes about how he developed his ministry to the deaf, how he experienced his life, what inspired him. He does not shirk travel. How does he cope with that? He is constantly accompanied by any one of several dedicated volunteers, yet, “It is important for me to give other people information on my special needs. People need to understand what I need – for instance, I make sure airline staff know that I need to sit close to a lavatory and that I want to have safety regulations explained to me so that my limitations are lessened.” Since he cannot see or hear, I ask him if his olfactory sense can help him differentiate one country from another. Fr Cyril’s face lights up into his typical wide smile, “Yes of course – I can smell the weather, the rain, the fresh air, the food. I am preparing to relocate to Malta where I feel my services are necessary, and in Malta... I can smell the sea.”

Fr Cyril talks about the fact that isolation is the most difficult reality in his life. He finds that people become frightened of him because there is a lack of communication. He candidly puts it like this: “Blindness separates me from things... deafness separates me from people.” Yet, his disabilities have not hampered him from learning eight spoken languages – English, Chinese, Portughese, Hebrew and four different South African languages. He has also learnt nine different sign languages – Chinese, American, Irish, Slovakian, Portughese, British and three different South African versions. And then there is his technological gear, a neat set-up of laptop, mobile phone, and a refreshable Braille display unit. He demonstrates how he can patiently and quietly write out emails, check his own spelling and send them off just like anybody else.

Fr Cyril prepares himself to become the first deaf-blind person in history to receive the OBE (Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II. The honour recognises his distinguished contribution to the development of the deaf-blind service in Hong Kong, and will be conferred on him later this month, on 22 November at Windsor Castle. As I prepare to take my leave of this extraordinary man, he encourages me to communicate with him using hand over hand signing, which I do. The satisfaction of seeing how I manage to get through to him, is intensely positive. Now I know how to communicate with other than the spoken or written mode – Fr Cyril has managed to inspire me too.

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