Writing at Medium earlier this year, Daniel J. Conway, a self-professed huge fan of the app-based ride service Lyft, described a trip he'd taken with a deaf driver. The driver, who could speak, told Conway he was deaf and handed him a pen and pad to write his destination. The driver told Conway to put on any radio station he'd like—try hearing that from a cabbie—and they exchanged a few more notes during the trip. "I now pay Lyft for the experience," Conway realized, "not for the rides."
What makes Conway's unusual experience so noteworthy is that evidently it's not all that unusual. Other bloggers have written about their own Lyft trips with deaf drivers. Earlier this month, a Fox affiliate in Modesto reported that a sign language instructor named Mark Medina actively recruits and trains drivers for the pink-mustachioed ride service. A Lyft driver named Jibril Jaha uses* an app that helps deaf drivers converse with passengers via smartphones and smart watches.
Without giving any hard numbers on the number of deaf drivers in the fleet, Lyft communications manager Chelsea Wilson confirmed the trend to CityLab in an email. "The members of our driver community are the heart of what makes the Lyft experience unique," writes Wilson. "A number of these drivers are hearing impaired and are able to take advantage of the flexibility and economic opportunity our platform provides."
The app Jaha uses—called I See What You Say—will only enhance that opportunity. When a passenger gets into Jaha's car, he explains that he's deaf but has a smart watch that helps him communicate with people who don't sign. When a passenger speaks into Jaha's smartphone, the app transcribes the message and transmits it to the watch for him to read (at a stoplight, of course). Here's Jaha giving a demonstration:
In August, Jaha told the San Francisco Chronicle this type of technology addresses a huge need for the deaf community:
"This has transformed the way I communicate with hearing people. I can read lips, but it's hard to do that while driving (or engaged in other activities). Writing things down takes too long. This really streamlines communications."
Whatever you think of Lyft and its ongoing battle with city regulators (not to mention Uber), it's hard to see this trend as anything but positive for everyone involved. The deaf community gets a new avenue of employment, and a job without the isolation that deaf workers often face. The hearing population learns to interact with deaf people and "not be too scared, not to be timid," as Medina told Fox. And city residents get enthusiastic drivers capable of answering that timeless question: What is sign language for "pink mustache"?
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Jibril Jaha developed the I See What You Say app. Digital Army Devices, Inc., which created the app, says Jaha did not play a coding or development role.