Breaking the barriers among deaf drivers | Sunday Observer

Breaking the barriers among deaf drivers

20 August, 2023
Minister of Transport, Highways and Mass Media, Dr. Bandula Gunawardena presenting a driver’s licence. State Minister of Transport Lasantha Alagiyawanna and several others participated.

Undeniably, they experience a world without sound, yet this stands as their singular challenge. Nationally, we found ourselves trailing in discussions of equitable treatment for all within a backdrop of global shifts in technology, humanity, and social perspectives.

Constituting a two percent fraction of our populace, those grappling with hearing impairments underscore the pressing need for a comprehensive initiative to weave this community into the fabric of our economy. Presently, this integration is more crucial than ever. This endeavour hinges on embracing the notion that they are ‘differently-abled,’ not ‘disabled.’

The trial initiative introduced in the Gampaha District yielded positive results. Starting on January 1, 2024, Sri Lanka will inaugurate a designated facility for granting driving licences to individuals with hearing impairments.

This service will be available to anyone of eligible age seeking a driving licence. The project is being spearheaded by the Ministry of Transport. We spoke to the Minister of State for Transport, Lasantha Alagiyawanna, who is in charge of the program.

“For almost four decades, a number of organisations including the Sri Lanka Central Federation of the Deaf (SLCFD) have been asking successive Governments to conduct an evaluation regarding the hearing impaired community’s ability to get a driver’s licence.

Right to drive

But no one was particularly concerned. Some people with hearing impairments had the right to drive. They drove on various side roads for fear of the Police. In this issue, they faced severe discrimination.

But a driver’s licence cannot be issued without evaluating one’s health and that’s a fact. But countries around the world have developed various technical and infrastructure facilities and issued driving licences for differently-abled drivers for a long time.

For example, in some countries facilities such as separate lanes were provided for the hearing impaired and drivers with special needs.

But there are no such facilities in our country and a driver’s licence has to be issued to a hearing impaired person within the existing legal framework. It was a matter of special consideration. We gradually upgraded the driving licence system. The medical certificate given to a driver has been improved.

Heavy vehicle licences are renewed every four years and it is eight years for light vehicles. This was also the reason for the delay in issuing driver’s licences to the hearing-impaired community,” the State Minister said.

However, the Police and the Department of Motor Vehicles made a special evaluation. The case was presented to the Cabinet and Transport, Highways and Mass Media Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena spoke about the right of the hearing impaired community to obtain a legal driver’s licence. The President had also given special priority in this regard, State Minister Alagiyawanna said.

“The Cabinet proposed a phased approach for implementation, advocating that instead of a nationwide rollout, we initiate the process by selecting a specific district such as Gampaha.

This would facilitate a pilot project aimed at identifying and addressing any deficiencies before advancing further. Consequently, we engaged with members of the hearing-impaired community within the Gampaha District who wanted driving licences.

They were briefed about the written exam as part of this preparation. Alongside the provisional training licence, they were provided with a distinct sign designed to be affixed to their helmets, jackets, and vehicles”.

Mobile service workshop

Currently, the work to issue driving licences to the hearing impaired population in the Kurunegala District is under way. A total of 350 applicants with hearing impairments participated in the mobile service workshop organised in the district.

Upon the initiation of the pilot project, the Association of Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat Specialists collaborated and furnished the National Transport Medical Institute (NTMI) with specialised insights concerning the sensory characteristics of individuals with hearing impairments. This knowledge guided the conduction of medical assessments during the workshop.

The group has been called today (20) to inform about the written exam. In the first two weeks of September, Kurunegala hearing impaired applicants will be given the driving licence. The State Minister said that the project is receiving a very humanitarian response.

“From January 1, this space will be open to the whole country. The Media Federation of the Deaf did a great job. As the Minister, Dr. Gunawardena gave the highest priority to this matter. The President also gave priority to this program with his international experience”.

However, concerns have arisen about the potential societal impact of issuing driving licences to the hearing impaired. Many people consider this situation to be a complex issue. Questions emerge regarding the safety of pedestrians, vehicles, and the hearing impaired drivers themselves. How can we ensure these aspects are safeguarded?

At the conclusion of our discussion, we posed this question to the State Minister. His response shed light on the matter. He clarified that the decision to extend driving licence opportunities to the hearing impaired community was based on a thorough evaluation of the lessons drawn from the pilot project and insights gleaned from international experiences.

Five senses

To enhance recognition and awareness, a distinctive symbol has been introduced to identify drivers with hearing impairments to other motorists. “Furthermore, there exists a natural principle that I personally believe in. When one of the five senses is compromised, the remaining senses often become remarkably heightened, compensating for the deficiency.

The majority of applicants seeking these licences are individuals who are already experienced drivers. Their only limitation lies in the absence of legal acknowledgment.

Meanwhile, in a nation where eight road accident fatalities are recorded daily, and a staggering 40,000 significant traffic incidents unfold each year, the victims possess intact senses.

Globally, there is no substantiated evidence indicating an upsurge in traffic accidents attributable to individuals with hearing impairments. The overarching goal should be to minimise road accidents comprehensively. It is important to note that currently, only driving licences for light vehicles are given to those with hearing impairments, with no provision for obtaining licences for heavy vehicles.

“The only difference these drivers have is their hearing impairment. We implemented this decision after the NTMI, DMV and Special Society for Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat came to a scientific conclusion regarding the driving ability of those with hearing impairments. Special thanks should be given to the Sri Lanka Police in this regard. They made a great contribution.”