This is one of the most common questions asked about people who live with Deafness or diminished hearing capacity. Many people make the hurtful and harmful assumption that because they can’t hear sirens, horns, or other traffic noises, Deaf people can’t – or shouldn’t – drive.
Driving – yes or no?
The short answer is yes, people with hearing loss or profound Deafness can drive in Canada. In fact, MTO states that Deaf drivers pass the same driving test as people who hear, and the Insurance Bureau of Canada states that hearing has no bearing on auto insurance. There are some countries that don’t allow a Deaf person to obtain a driver’s license, a denial of what many people feel is a fundamental right.
Without the right to drive, a large majority of Deaf people would be restricted by access to public transportation, which would impact their access to employment and medical and community services. Some Deaf people have reported that they were denied the ability to test drive or rent a vehicle or have been assumed to be at fault when involved in an accident. In 2006, a federal appeals court in California ruled that the United Parcel Service (UPS) illegally discriminated against hundreds of Deaf employees by barring them from driving delivery vans. This landmark decision was the result of a class-action lawsuit filed against UPS by hundreds of hearing-impaired would-be drivers, and because other U.S.-based delivery companies were using Deaf drivers at the time, UPS’ blanket exclusion was difficult to justify under the Americans With Disabilities Act. This important ruling subsequently prompted many North American companies and employers to review their hiring policies and job requirements to ensure that no broad groups of people were excluded without “good reason”.
Is driving license needed?
This is not a new issue. Deaf people have been dealing with discrimination and uneducated assumptions for a long time, but great strides have been made over the last century. The Ukraine-born Deaf Canadian leader David Peikoff was an important advocate for the rights of the Deaf community at all stages of life, focusing on employment and educational opportunities. In 1931, he campaigned to defend the right of Deaf people to obtain their driver’s license.
An article titled “World’s Safest Drivers” appeared in a 1948 issue of Ford Times, offered support in favor of Deaf drivers. Articles written in the 1960s by a U.S. judge in Colorado brought attention to the safe driving records held by members of the Deaf community, which also helped muster support in favor of Deaf people having access to driver’s licenses.
But what else can we do to bring awareness to the issues faced by members of the Deaf community? We can educate ourselves on the unique challenges they face and bust the misconceptions and myths that surround people who live with hearing loss.
Does the level of hearing loss matter?
It is a common misconception that Deaf people hear nothing at all. Most members of this community have at least some degree of hearing, and many can identify and process extreme noises or frequencies such as those emitted by nearby trains or sirens.
Because they are accustomed to being more attuned to their surroundings than the hearing population, Deaf people can be more alert to visual cues in situations that can impact safety. For example, all drivers know that traffic moving to the side indicates that an emergency vehicle is approaching from the rear, because we rely on this type of visual cue when we are driving. There is some research that suggests that Deaf adults have increased peripheral vision, which is definitely a plus when you are operating a vehicle. A study performed at the UK-based University of Sheffield showed that the retinas of adults who were born deaf developed differently than the retinas of their hearing counterparts. Deaf people also tend to “scan” their environments faster and are more adept at reading body language.
There are also practical solutions that can help drivers remain vigilant to their surroundings and emergencies, such as special side mirrors and wide-angle rearview mirrors that allow for a greater field of vision, and electronic devices that can visually alert drivers to nearby sirens or horns.
Technology aid for the drivers
Technology is also paving the way for Deaf drivers. Many of today’s car manufacturers have incorporated collision-avoidance systems into vehicles, which can help drivers avoid accidents. Some Hyundai models can identify exterior noises around the car and communicate them to the driver. Eyesight, a feature found in some Subarus, observes traffic patterns and movements. Lyft drivers who are Deaf can disable the “call” feature and only communicate with passengers via text. It’s exciting to see big businesses making things as accessible as possible to accommodate a variety of user experiences.
It never hurts to take extra precautions and stay prepared! If you are Deaf or living with diminished hearing capacity, follow these tips to ensure your success on the road:
- Work with an audiologist or hearing specialist to determine what devices or assistive equipment that you’ll need to drive safely
- Maintain your hearing aids and clean them regularly, and don’t forget to take spare batteries with you! The feedback emitted from a damaged or dirty hearing aid can be a major distraction on the road. If you see damage on your unit or are experiencing feedback reach out to your hearing professional as soon as possible. Consider an upgrade to Bluetooth®-enabled hearing aids, which can sync directly to your GPS and provide turn-by-turn directions and alert drivers to road hazards.
- Have regular medical check-ups and have your vision tested frequently. When one of our senses is comprised, it is important to maintain the function of the ones that remain!
- Stay on top of your car maintenance! Keeping your vehicle in good working order is important for all drivers, but ensuring that everything is working as it should can cut down on complications, particularly for drivers that can’t hear noises emitted by their vehicle.
- While you are driving, pay attention to your turn signals to make sure that they aren’t still active from your last turn. This could confuse other people on the road, including pedestrians.
- Whenever possible, make eye contact with other drivers or pedestrians to make sure that your intentions are understood.
- Ask your passengers to keep noise and conversation levels to a minimum and keep the windows rolled up to eliminate outside distractions and wind noise. Turn down the radio and ask backseat drivers to limit the conversation to information that may impact your journey. Do not sign or attempt to speech read while you are operating a vehicle.
- Keep a visor card in your vehicle. Visor cards let police and other emergency responders that the driver is Deaf or lives with hearing loss or relies on speechreading or hearing aids. These cards also include helpful graphics and imagery that allow you to communicate easily with others, which can be helpful in an emergency situation. Keep a notepad in your glovebox or console in case you are having trouble making yourself understood. You can also ask police officers or other personnel to write instructions or information and prevent misunderstandings. If you live in Ontario, reach out to The Ontario Association of the Deaf (OAD). The organization has partnered with the Ontario Provincial Police, the first service to provide members of the Deaf community with visor cards and promote awareness of the issues that can arise from miscommunications between citizens and law enforcement agents.
- Invest in your success with some additional training before you hit the road. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offers a large variety of helpful videos and web trainings that can help inform hard-of-hearing or Deaf drivers on how to deal with law enforcements during dreaded traffic stops.
- Last but not least (and we wish we didn’t have to say this!), put your phone away. Don’t be tempted to take a peek at the screen when you are behind the wheel.
Research shows that nearly 1-in-4 Canadians will experience some sort of hearing loss in their lifetimes, but thankfully, it won’t impact your ability to obtain or maintain a valid driver’s license! We’ve come a long way with awareness through partnerships with law enforcement, state-of-the-art technology from automobile manufacturers, and resources available for people who are Deaf or living with diminished hearing capacity. Have we missed anything? Drop your tips or resources in the comments.