Carl Woolf

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Though he was born deaf and disabled and has struggled continually against misunderstanding, prejudice, bullying, illness and poor policy, Carl Woolf has shown that, given the right opportunity, he and others like him can lead happy, fulfilled and active lives. Here, his mother, Anita Woolf, shares her vision for Carl and for other physically disabled adults.

My son Carl was born profoundly deaf and physically disabled in 1962. When he was a baby, I was told by a panel of doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital that he had ‘primitive development’ and ‘near vegetable intelligence’. But I knew different – his eyes were bright and responsive.

As he grew older, Carl’s naturally inquisitive and energetic nature erupted. Despite severe spasticity in his legs, he taught himself to crawl, to walk and even, at the age of ten, to ride a bike. I struggled to keep track of him. One day I found his bike locked up outside the local tube station. As usual, I had the police looking for him. But he eventually arrived home on his bike, armed with London Underground maps that he had begged from the Tourist Bureau at Charing Cross Station. Thus began his weekend trips; he was determined to visit every station in London.

We tried sending Carl to several different schools. At this time sign language was frowned on, and he and other deaf children were made to sit on their hands. One thought he was very backward. I pointed out his great interest in maps, but they said it was ‘a primitive interest in shapes and colour’. Fortunately, he had one wonderful teacher who insisted, when he was fourteen, that he be taught sign language. The improvement in every aspect of his life was quite extraordinary.

Carl’s never lost his desire to travel freely. He took driving lessons and proved himself an excellent driver. He passed his test and was soon travelling the length and breadth of London and then England.

Carl’s education had not provided him with ways of realising his potential or expressing himself and had included no vocational training. Unsurprisingly, he could not get a job. His frustration was immense as he saw his younger brothers and sister go out into the world. A spell living in rural Bedfordshire brought some happiness, but he was lonely. A few difficult bullying situations at local deaf clubs resulted in depression and eventually a full-scale breakdown.

In 1997, when Carl was 34, we moved back to London in the hope that the city might offer more for him. But everywhere we looked for jobs, health and safety regulations were an issue. He found deaf clubs all over London and soon got to know a group of fairly streetwise deaf men with a variety of disabilities. They started to take advantage of him and then to bully and threaten him. One stabbed him in the arm. They sent us all death threats. We reported each incident to the police, who took copious notes but said they could do nothing.

Eventually the bullies lost interest, but further setbacks awaited. Carl had to be admitted to hospital to treat an infection in his foot. After weeks of appalling treatment, he came out with hospital-acquired MRSA. He now has permanent lymphoedema, for which he needs a daily visit from a carer.

This was the state of play when a social worker suggested he try going to Flightways. When he walked in and saw one or two friends from past school days, he was overjoyed. But what had once been a thriving centre with nearly two hundred users, providing art, pottery, computer training, photography, physiotherapy, counselling when needed and buses for transport, was now a shadow of its former self. Funding was slowly and relentlessly being withdrawn. By 2008 we realised that Flightways was under threat and that we had to start raising money to keep the courses and activities going.

Carl is now in his fifties, and I don’t know how long I will be around to fight his corner. There are some attendees who no longer have any parents or family around to support them. Many of them have similar or even more harrowing stories to tell. And this is why I am using every ounce of my energy to create a future for all of them, through Maxability.

by Anita Woolf, proud mother of a wonderful human being, Carl Woolf