IN just a few hours a man who made news when he was barred from boarding a plane in South Africa, will be invested with the OBE at Windsor Castle.
Behind the two events lies the same set of facts: Cyril Axelrod, a deaf and blind Catholic priest, travels internationally – often flying solo – as part of his work with the deaf and blind community.
It is for that work, developing training services and supporting blind and deaf people all over the world, that Axelrod will receive the OBE. And it was in pursuit of that work that Axelrod tried to board a plane in Cape Town a few months ago only to be told that he could prove a danger for himself and others on the flight. This despite the fact that he held a ticket issued by the carrier’s parent company, and had already flown, alone, from the United Kingdom with South Africa a brief stopover on the way to Hong Kong.
Outside the blind and deaf community here, Axelrod is probably little known in South Africa even though he is a native of Johannesburg. Born profoundly deaf he didn’t walk until he was three or speak until he was nine.
His parents, devout Jews, sent him to St Vincent’s school for the deaf in Johannesburg. Initially he wanted to be a rabbi but was told that because of his deafness this was not possible.
Later he decided to become a Catholic priest and was sent to study philosophy at Gallaudet University in the USA which caters specifically for deaf and hard of hearing students.
Once he returned to South Africa he completed his theological training and after being ordained he began work among deaf adults and children, first in South Africa and then in the Far East where he spent 15 years. Then he noticed his vision deteriorating: he had Usher’s Syndrome and soon became totally blind.
Unable to continue his work as before, he moved to England to study braille and prepare for an independent life as a deafblind person. In the process he also qualified as a massage therapist, a skill that makes the most of his highly developed sense of touch, now his main source of communication.
I’ve never met Axelrod but after I heard that he’d been mentioned in Queen Elizabeth’s birthday honours list and would be invested with the OBE I watched a number of videos in which he speaks and signs through interpreters.
Some are astounding, with multi-layers of communication. One, for instance, filmed in Korea at the launch of Axelrod’s autobiography, ‘And the journey begins’ shows footage taken from Korean TV. The event involved a Korean voice, Korean sign language, international sign language and finger spelling for Axelrod.
At the moment he is based in London but travels extensively for his work among the deafblind: to China at least twice a year and with regular trips to Malta, Slovakia, Singapore, Japan, Korea, Australia, Canada and South Africa. He speaks or understands at least 15 languages including Cantonese.
I’m not easily given to sentiment, but after watching his intense, charismatic, compassionate interaction with other people – deaf, blind, hearing, sighted – all over the world, I did wonder whether we would ultimately come to think of him as a kind of ‘Mother Theresa’ of the deafblind.
For people whose lives haven’t yet been directly touched by deafness or blindness it may be difficult to imagine how to approach and communicate. Axelrod’s response illustrates his belief that much of what is regarded as handicap is in fact a gift: approach the deaf or blind person, he says, and ask them to teach you how to communicate. Let them show you.
Axelrod chose to join the Redemptorist priests whose order specifically focuses on mission work among the neglected. When he goes to Windsor Castle tomorrow for his investiture he will wear the simple, long black Redemptorist’s robes and he’ll be accompanied by his friend Larry Kaufmann, head of the order in South Africa, similarly robed. Kaufmann, in his role as communicator-guide, will interpret the royal words to him, and voice his reply.
This week I asked Axelrod how he felt about the OBE. His answer, sent by email from his smart phone: ‘I owe deep appreciation to those who put their confidence in my humble service towards deafblind people by developing a training programme for those working with them. Simply, it is beyond the words that I can express about the royal award.’