Deaf Drivers On Our Roads

31 Jan 2018 10:20am
By Natasha Diergaardt

WINDHOEK, 31 JAN (NAMPA) - When Vilho Kandume drives Ministry of Works and Transport vehicles, nothing about his appearance betrays the fact that he is deaf.
He is one of about 17 454 Namibians with a hearing impairment (Namibia Intercensal Demographic Survey 2016 Report) and among very few deaf people licensed to drive a car.
Many people do not know that the deaf are allowed to drive legally. They assume that simply because deaf people cannot hear sirens and car horns, they are most likely to be the liable party in case of car accidents due to their supposedly compromised ability to drive.
Kandume feels saddened that people with hearing abilities often undermine the Deaf, thinking they cannot be good workers or drivers because they cannot hear.
“I can see their negative attitudes towards me when they find out I am deaf,” he told Nampa through Namibian Sign Language interpreter Selma Moses.
He legally became a licensed driver in 1989 and has been in the employ of the Ministry of Works and Transport since 2013 as a driver, delivering documents to various Government agencies and driving Government visitors.
Kandume, who knows of 10 other deaf people who can also drive legally, said the Deaf have a great sense of responsibility and there are very few of them who have been caught driving drunk, as they are always cautious to adhere to the rules of the road.
Asked how he deals with sirens from emergency service vehicles, he indicated that he is always alert and vigilant to spot such vehicles by frequently checking his mirrors to ensure that he becomes fully aware of all movements outside the car.
When it comes to his ability to notice mechanical faults on the car, he said he relies mainly on the vibrations caused by the engine. Additionally, he frequently glances at the dashboard to see if there are any emergency lights flickering.
Kandume said he does not usually experience problems at roadblocks, even though most police officers at these roadblocks are almost always surprised to learn that he drives a vehicle whilst deaf.
Namibian Police Force (NamPol) spokesperson, Chief Inspector Kaunapawa Shikwambi told this agency upon enquiry that they do not have any official statistics on the number of deaf drivers involved in accidents.
She said the force does not have any reservations when it comes to deaf drivers on the roads, adding that “any offender will be dealt with in accordance with the law”.
NamPol has at least two officers per region trained in introductory Namibian Sign Language, and plans are underway to further their training depending on the availability of funds.
“The only challenge is that we do not have enough trained members to deploy across all road traffic checkpoints, or participate in all police crime prevention operations. However, they are always consulted and are available whenever their services are required,” Shikwambi said.
The senior police officer further said recommendations can always be made to the relevant offices, including the Ministry of Works and Transport, to have more members of the force trained in sign language and deployed accordingly.
Another deaf driver, Josea Iipinge, said through his colleague and sign language interpreter, Lizette Beukes, he knows about 40 deaf people, mostly men, who can drive.
He does not know whether they all have driver’s licences and neither does the Roads Authority (RA).
RA spokesperson Hileni Fillemon acknowledged that the Namibian Traffic Information System (NaTIS) – the body responsible for issuing licences to successful learner drivers - does not have statistics of deaf drivers because they are not classified as differently-abled by the law.
“Deaf people are regarded as normal drivers,” she pointed out, adding that the RA does not make a clear distinction on people’s driver’s licence cards or cars that they are deaf.
Iipinge, a teacher’s assistant at the Centre for Communication and Deaf Studies (CCDS) in the capital, got his licence in Windhoek in 2006 on his second attempt. Both times, he had no interpreter to help him communicate with the NaTIS officials during the tests - they used basic hand gestures to communicate.
Learner driver’s tests, at the time, were done orally but Iipinge and Kandume were allowed to do theirs in writing.
Fillemon conceded that NaTIS does not have permanent sign language interpreters.
“However, the learner’s licence test is conducted in writing and for the driving licence test, a route is drawn up in advance to indicate to the applicant where to turn and drive during the test. Hand signals are also used to direct the applicant if they have forgotten the route,” she explained.
Iipinge only communicates with his passengers when the car is not in motion, and he too checks his mirrors regularly while driving to observe activities outside the car and pick up on mechanical problems from the way the car vibrates.
Iipinge prides himself on never having been involved in an accident as a driver.
Beukes mentioned that Iipinge is one of the best drivers she knows. “He is observant and is always the first to see something in the road,” she said, adding that deaf people’s other senses, especially their vision, are heightened.
Iipinge advised other deaf people who would like to get their licences that they are no different from someone who can hear and that they too have the right to drive cars.
Beata Armas, who is also deaf and works at CCDS, got her licence on her fourth attempt in January 2018. She was dismayed at the fact that there was no interpreter provided by NaTIS for her tests.
The third time she went, she paid an interpreter to assist with communication during the driver’s test.
Armas, Iipinge and Kandume insist that NaTIS should foot the bill for interpreters, some of whom charge N.dollars 500 per hour.
Queried about this, Fillemon said currently, the number of deaf applicants does not warrant the appointment of a permanent interpreter; “however, this can be looked at in the future”.
Armas was quick to put people who feel uncomfortable about deaf drivers on the road at ease, saying the deaf “hear with their eyes, follow the rules and generally drive well.”
Deputy Minister of Disability Affairs, Alexia Manombe-Ncube agreed, saying driving is mostly a visual activity.
“Hearing-impaired drivers have a heightened sense of sight and better peripheral vision. Since they depend on it to compensate for the hearing loss, their sight is enhanced,” Manombe-Ncube stated.
She explained that deaf drivers are alert to any visual cues whilst driving such as noticing other drivers’ movements to the side of the road, which indicates that an emergency vehicle is approaching or that a motorcade is approaching and they must pull over.
The deputy minister suggested, among others, advocacy for the incorporation of sign language as one of the national languages of Namibia to ensure that at public and private service points sign language interpretation is made available, just like other languages' interpretation.
Manombe-Ncube added that communities need to stop “dissing” (disrespecting) people with disabilities.
“We need to flip the word ‘disability’ and start focusing on the ‘ABILITY’,” hence her office’s ‘Don’t Dis-my Ability campaign’, which aims to educate communities not to focus on the disability, but on the person.
With Namibia ranked as one of the countries with the highest number of road accidents, maybe hearing drivers can actually learn something from deaf drivers. With a little more caution and attentiveness, many lives can be saved.