Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
But some services have faced allegations of passenger discrimination in the past.
Deaf drivers have faced a litany of challenges. In the 1920s, a handful of states passed legislation barring them from the road, reports Gallaudet University, a preeminent institution for deaf students. There was even talk about federally mandated hearing tests for drivers. During that era, the National Association of the Deaf formed an Automobile Bureau tasked with gathering statistics about deaf drivers’ safety records. Then, in 1929, The Philadelphia Record reported that none of the 177 licensed deaf drivers in the city had been involved in an accident. Ultimately, states repealed their policies. Still, discrimination remains.
“The biggest misconception is that deaf people cannot drive at all, or safely,” Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, told CityLab. “The truth is that deaf people have been driving since the advent of cars, and studies have shown that deaf drivers are just as safe as or even safer than drivers who can hear.” That assertion is backed up by recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA), which published a literature review of relevant research, concluding that the majority of deaf drivers are at no greater risk than drivers without hearing impairments. Writes the NHTSA:
Despite the importance of auditory information for driving (e.g., auditory feedback regarding operation of the motor vehicle, mechanical failure, awareness of other road users through detection of road noise, horn honking, etc.), there are few data to indicate that impairments in hearing affect driving ability.
The primary obstacle is for deaf people who drive for a living, and may struggle to communicate with passengers who don’t sign, Rosenblum adds. In this case, “the use of texting in place of phone calls is critically helpful,” he says.
That’s the crux of new features Uber announced last week, rolling out in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., designed to better serve this population. The features must be activated by drivers. Once turned on, a flashing light indicates a new trip request. (This was previously denoted via a dinging sound.) Passengers will not be able to call deaf or hard-of-hearing drivers who opt into the feature; instead, they’ll receive an in-app instruction to convey any additional details via text.
Time notes that this move could be an attempt for Uber to clean up its tarnished track record when it comes to disabled passengers. Both Uber and Lyft have been smacked with lawsuits alleging mistreatment of riders. One lawsuit brought by the National Federation of the Blind of California argues that an UberX driver locked a blind passenger’s guide dog in the trunk of the car. Jennifer McPhail of Austin, Texas, contends in another lawsuit that a Lyft driver left her on the curb when her wheelchair proved difficult to maneuver into the car, Fortune reports. (Both companies have denied the allegations.)
Uber has not yet released any information about updating app features for disabled passengers.
In the meantime, the Twitter account @DeafUberDriver (unaffiliated with the company) re-Tweets passengers’ experiences with deaf or hard-of-hearing drivers, and offers tips for effective interaction, such as giving your driver as much information as possible, as early as possible.