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January 25, 2004

Why shouldn't the deaf drive?

From: Jamaica Observer - Jan 25, 2004

New effort to give hearing-impaired persons the right to hold drivers' licences

By Ann-Margaret Lim Observer staff reporter

Anthony Aitken cannot hear the honking of horns or the purr of an engine. But the accountant at the Jamaica Flour Mills can certainly drive a car - which puts him in a select group of only 20 hearing-impaired Jamaicans who have drivers' licences.

In fact, Aitken is a pioneer of sorts, being probably the only deaf Jamaican who got his driver's licence locally. All the others received their permits overseas, in countries where hearing-impaired persons are not discriminated against.

"I have had no problems. Not being able to hear has not affected my ability to drive carefully," he told the Sunday Observer. "And my life has been enriched by being able to get myself around without relying on public transportation."

Aitken was lucky. Under the outdated 1938 Road Traffic Act, which is still on the books here, hearing-impaired Jamaicans are prohibited from obtaining drivers' licences. But all this could soon change. Senator Floyd Morris, the state minister in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security - himself a blind man - is working with the Ministry of Transport and Works to have the act amended to allow this category of persons to receive drivers' licences.

A submission is now being prepared for Cabinet green light to set the process in motion. "The issue of whether the deaf can be allowed to drive has been an ongoing debate for the last two years," the state-run Jamaica Information Service (JIS) quoted Morris as saying last week.

"We are trying to correct an anomaly and the Government is not opposed to issuing drivers' licences for the deaf; this is nearer fruition than most think," said Morris. The senator was also reported as saying that a public forum would be held next month to involve Jamaicans in a wider debate on the issue.

Iris Scouter, executive director of the Jamaica Association for the Deaf (JAD) found Morris' efforts "encouraging", and lauded the senator for making "more forward steps than have been made in the past 25 years".

But Derrick Palmer, regional director of the Disabled People's Organisation (DPO), while applauding Morris' attempt to champion the cause of the disabled, was doubtful that hearing-impaired persons would be granted drivers' licences any time soon. "This is long overdue, as the DPO and JAD have been lobbying the Government for this since 1981," Palmer told the Sunday Observer. "It has never reached as far as the Cabinet before, but we are not jumping for joy as yet, since there is still no given timeline."

He accused the Government of violating the human rights of the disabled by denying them the right to hold drivers' licences. Palmer recalled that the DPO and other organisations had staged a protest about two or so years ago, admittedly "to strengthen Morris's hand and push him".

Speaking for the Ministry of Transport and Works, Leo McEwan, the public relations manager, conceded that there was no concrete timeline for going to the Cabinet.

But McEwan said there was a debate as to whether or not this proposed amendment should be extended to the totally deaf or restricted to the partially deaf (hearing-impaired). He said the debate favoured the hearing-impaired.

"It does not seem that it will include the totally deaf. We have examined foreign countries and found that the totally deaf do not get licences," said McEwan. Morris complained that Jamaica was among only 26 countries in the world where the hearing-impaired are legally prohibited from driving. He noted that there were more than 20 hearing-impaired motorists in Jamaica who were driving on licences obtained overseas.

Anthony is an exception, however, as he obtained his licence after passing his driving test at the Spanish Town Depot. He said the examiners were aware that he was deaf. In a perspective from the police traffic division, Deputy Superintendent Claude Reynolds questioned the ability of the deaf to adequately respond to emergency vehicles and communicate with traffic cops, arguing that "the ordinary motorists will hear and obey the audible signals but the deaf would not".

As in so many other areas of life, technology seems to be on the side of the hearing-impaired who would like to drive. According to the Free Lance-Star, a web-news magazine, visor cards that notify police officers that the bearer cannot hear are an option. Visor cards display the broken ear, an international symbol for the hard of hearing, and should be attached to the car's sun visor and pointed to when the driver is stopped by police.

Felis Jones, special administrator at the Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf (CCCD), which teaches woodwork, information technology, sewing, construction and other vocational skills to the hearing-impaired, also disagreed with DSP Reynolds.

"The hearing-impaired can see flashing lights on these emergency vehicles, and they use their rearview mirrors more often," she insisted. Jones said her daughter and son-in-law, both lecturers at CCCD, while in the United States drove their own vehicles, equipped with panoramic mirrors, and were not frustrated. She also suggested that more cops take sign language classes to help them communicate with the hearing-impaired.

Sound and Fury (, a website that focuses on the hearing-impaired, recommended a coping device which rates the type of sound and alerts the disabled driver via a multi-light panel. Dr Stephen Chang, ear nose and throat (ENT) specialist, supported the proposed amendment, noting that the hearing-impaired had been driving for many years.

"They are more careful and aware and they do not increase the number of road accidents," Chang argued. He said if there were any doubts, special instruments for their vehicles could be imported and that the individuals could be examined annually for further deterioration in their hearing. Palmer insisted that hearing-impaired drivers "are mostly not an issue around the world" and pointed to the Caribbean where countries such as St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Cuba granted licences to the disabled.

An employee at the Jamaica Association for the Deaf, who asked not to be identified, charged that the disabled were often disregarded in Jamaican society. For example, she said, there was no accurate count of the number of deaf or hearing-disabled Jamaicans, because "the census does not specifically identify this segment".

She noted that last year's official figure, which tallied the number of mild to profound cases at 425, was not a true reflection, adding that based on enrolment at the three schools for the deaf in Jamaica, there were 500 known deaf persons. But that figure excluded many adults who were not in school. The police traffic division could not provide statistics on the more than 20 hearing-impaired drivers, and there was no way of judging what percentage of the 338 road traffic accidents and 374 road deaths last year involved the hearing-impaired.

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