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Spotlight on driving for the deaf and hard of hearing

Being hard of hearing needn’t limit freedoms on the open road.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers often face stigma around being behind the wheel.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers often face stigma around being behind the wheel.

While it may not cross our minds very often, it’s more than likely that the idea of deaf drivers would provoke a reaction of disbelief.

Driving is a difficult skill – something that requires our full attention. Trying to navigate the tricky obstacle course of British motorways, the leaps of faith that greet us on every blind country-road corner, the labyrinth of road works that infest every part of the country without each and every sense working at full capacity seems an impossible task.

Of course, this is ridiculous.

While there are certainly situations where hearing can help, there is almost always other ways of registering them. A classic example would be an ambulance’s siren. Yes, the noise is probably its most distinctive feature, but the flashing lights or even the way the traffic moves to make way for them are also extremely viable ways of knowing that an ambulance is on its way.

Combined with the fact that deaf drivers are more likely to be checking their mirrors and are less likely to be distracted by external influences (think jamming out to your favourite song), then it’s no surprise that, statistically speaking, hard-of-hearing drivers are much safer.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t barriers for them… they’re just not the barriers you might have originally thought.

“Can you drive if you’re deaf?”

One of the biggest obstacles hard of hearing drivers face is just convincing people to let them drive.

There are many cases of deaf people coming up against issue after issue when trying to secure their driving licence. This ranges from test centres being woefully unprepared to accommodate people who are hard of hearing, either by not having a space for them to work without distractions or simply not having an interpreter available, to driving instructors feeling too intimidated to teach deaf students and forcing friends and family to take them driving.

What is so tragic about this is that it doesn’t need to be so difficult. All it takes is a few adjustments and a better understanding of the hard of hearing community.

I got in contact with the Royal Institute for Deaf People (RNID) and talked with Annie Harris, their Advocacy Officer, who also happens to be profoundly deaf. She outlined her personal experience with her excellent driving instructor, which only highlights how simple it is to accommodate deaf drivers.

“When I learned to drive, my instructor was amazing. He would tell me where we were going beforehand, I would drive, then he would ask me to pull over and give me more directions. He also showed key gestures he would use to help me understand what I needed to do. If I made a small mistake, he would tell me to pull over, explain this to me by giving me eye contact and write it down if I did not understand.”

When you consider that, according to the UK government, there are nearly 11 million adults with some form of hearing loss in the UK alone, then you realise how many people are being marginalised for almost no reason.

This doesn’t mean that the hard of hearing don’t miss out on some features of driving that we may take for granted. Those who are profoundly deaf may not hear the blaring horn of an irate commuter (possibly a boon, in some situations) or may not hear that something is wrong with their engine, such as described by Janine Roebuck, a deaf opera singer.

But there’s nothing to be done about that, right?

Something being done about it

In 2019, Hyundai showcased their innovative new tech and brought into focus how cars will be able to support the hard of hearing in the near future. Incorporating two new systems, Audio-Visual Conversion and Audio-Tactile Conversion into ‘The Quiet Taxi’, they showed how the tools we already have today can be used to translate sounds into visual and tactile cues.

However, even though this technology aims to help the hard of hearing community, Annie Harris pointed out a potential double-edge to this sword: “What I would like to see is this technology to be rolled out as the ‘norm’ so it’s not just directed to the deaf community, as that would just highlight and wrongfully perpetuate the stigma that we cannot drive safely without such technologies.’

And that’s not even taking in consideration the potential costs of this tech. While there are clearly some benefits, do those benefits outweigh the economic burden when deaf and hard of hearing drivers are already one of the safest driving demographics? As Annie Harris pointed out herself, ‘If it was very expensive, I would not buy it, as I already know I am a safe driver.’

But despite these concerns, it is clear that this technology is a huge step in the right direction; after all, our cars already ‘see’ for us (with sign reading and lane control systems commonplace in new cars), so it only seems logical that they ‘hear’ for us as well.

A different perspective

I started this article because I was curious as to why there was no 'deaf technology' for driving beyond the Hyundai’s Quiet Taxi. I had seen how impressive some Motability options are first-hand and I felt that the deaf community were being overlooked.

I now realise that that was my own prejudice at play. The hard of hearing don’t need specific technology to help them drive because there is already plenty found in cars today… it’s the same technology I use every time I get in and drive. Be it my parking sensor giving me a radar view of how close I am to scratching my bumper, a passing driver flashing their headlights to warm me of an obstacle further down the road, or even just my flashing indicators, everything is already there to inform me, both audibly and visually, to drive safely.

That doesn’t mean I think the Hyundai technology isn’t needed; I strongly believe that it would be a fantastic addition to our growing arsenal of driving tools. However, I now understand how foolish it was to think of it as something 'just for the hard of hearing'.

This sort of tech would benefit everyone in the same way braking lights benefit everyone.

So, what’s next?

At the end of the day, the largest barrier the hard of hearing community face when it comes to driving is the near systemic prejudice they face from the general public. Be it from those quizzical looks they receive when they get behind the wheel of a car, the lack of accommodation for taking their driving tests, or the out-and-out dismissal of their abilities, there needs to be a much better, and wider, understanding of the capabilities of the hard of hearing. Just because we can’t imagine driving without hearing doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

As Annie Harris so elegantly put it, 'If Rose Ayling-Ellis can dance without music on Strictly Come Dancing, deaf people can most certainly drive without sound.'

A huge thank you to Annie Harris and Rebekah McKinstry from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People for taking the time to answer questions and help with this article.

For more information about the RNID and the wonderful work they do, please check out their website here.

Or, if you would like to know how to communicate in a more inclusive way for the deaf and hard of hearing, check out the RNID’s communication tips here.

About the Author

Simon Treanor