How deaf and blind Yossi found his voice

By Jessica Elgot, April 27, 2012
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Life in the fast lane: Yossi Samuels (right) at Silverstone

Life in the fast lane: Yossi Samuels (right) at Silverstone

Yossi Samuels is a current affairs devotee, a qualified wine-taster and an expert on cars.

But the 35-year-old Israeli is also blind, deaf and largely confined to a wheelchair, able to communicate only through sounds and by outlining Hebrew letters on his brother's palm. He is in the UK to promote the disability charity founded by his parents.

Born healthy, a faulty vaccination at 18 months caused his blindness and deafness and left him abnormally hyperactive. He had no way of communicating until he was eight. Most of the babies vaccinated with the same batch died - the others are in a permanent vegetative state.

With his brother Avi interpreting, Mr Samuels declared: "The state of Israel ruined my life. We spent eight years battling the state for what they did. When I couldn't communicate, I was very angry. I was hyperactive, full of an energy I couldn't let out."

Taking up the story, Avi Samuels explained: "We lived in one bedroom in Jerusalem, five brothers, including Yossi. We are seven siblings altogether. We always supported each other as a family, including him in everything, but Yossi was extremely difficult.

"My mother was distressed and friends, relatives and doctors urged us to have him put in an institution. My mother said she made a deal with God, that if she could find some way to communicate with her son, she would dedicate her life to helping people like him."

Parents Malki and Kalman took the family to the US to seek treatment for Yossi when he was three. No progress was made and five years later they returned to Israel, where there was finally a breakthrough.

"We had a moment with a therapist - Shoshanna Weinstuck - when she was spelling Hebrew letters on his palm. Yossi understood his first word, 'table'. His prison was broken down. Now he's a challenging conversationalist."

The Samuels founded the Shalva charity after Yossi's breakthrough and its first centre opened in Jerusalem in 1990. Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau was also in London this week to promote the launch of a British Friends group.

Shalva cares for mentally and physically disabled children, Jewish and non-Jewish, including overnight respite programmes. Care is free in 80 per cent of cases. Jerusalem City Council has approved land for premises for the largest and most advanced centre of its kind in the Middle East.

For Yossi Samuels, travelling to lecture about his life and Shalva is one of his greatest pleasures. "I want to travel across the world, to Australia, South Africa, Japan," he said. "I hope I can influence people and inspire them. It's very cool to be in London. Last night I spent at the pub with some sixth-formers, which was fantastic. I try to show them how I can get through my difficulties with happiness. I prefer to be open and out-going."

His passion for cars - he can identify a make just by touching a door handle - took him to Silverstone for a trip in a race car with a professional driver.

In Israel, Mr Samuels works one day a week in the research department of an electric car company. "I can tell them things which no one else realises about the car. It's not the technical aspect; it's the way it feels."

Swimming and horse-riding are other loves and his interest in politics got him an invitation to tea at the White House in 2007. A great admirer of the then President George Bush, "I told him to make sure he was firm on Iran and Iraq and to help bring Gilad Shalit home. I don't like President Obama. He won't free Jonathan Pollard, even though he is unwell." Mr Samuels was due to meet Gordon Brown yesterday.

"My mother always says if Yossi could actually see the world, he'd probably be disappointed," Avi Samuels reflected. "He feels everything so vibrantly."

Last updated: 3:36pm, April 27 2012