On a sunny autumn afternoon in the grungy, graffiti-splattered Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, Morgan Wang, a mobile game marketing consultant, is watching the Uber car she recently hailed pull up in front of her apartment building.
Her driver, a short and bespectacled middle-aged man, exits the vehicle and eagerly takes Wang’s suitcase, loading it in the back of his metallic charcoal Honda CR-V. Wearing a striped, grey collared shirt, he smiles and gestures towards the vehicle, all while not making a peep.
Wang, a 23-year-old California native, takes the back seat and is handed a laminated piece of paper. Dismay spreads across her face, her eyes absorbing the note’s message: her driver is deaf.
“Definitely something you don’t see every day,” she says. “How do deaf people drive? It’s cool that they can make a living that way — in one of the most chaotic cities.”
The driver is Yuriy Grinman, a 56-year-old Ukrainian immigrant. He was born deaf and worked as a dental technician until he signed up to be both an Uber and Lyft driver last year.
“When I lived over there, it wasn’t equal,” Grinman says of his homeland, through a sign language interpreter during an interview. He came to the United States in 1993. “Deaf people don’t have the same access as hearing people. Education opportunities were limited. The majors at college for deaf people were only gym teacher, dental technician, and tailor.”
Grinman aspired to be a doctor like his mother, but settled for a career in dentistry, one he would maintain after arriving in America. More recently, after a friend mentioned Uber and Lyft to Grinman, he researched them both, and discovered he was legally qualified to drive their vehicles. He signed up as a driver with the two companies, and within just a few weeks had traded a life of teeth, fluoride, and fluorescent lights for one of speedometers, steering wheels, and Google Maps.
“I never thought I’d do this type of job. I never thought a deaf person could be a driver,” Grinman says. “The technology makes it easy. I like that.”
The phone apps provide him with customer locations, directions and drop-off points, eradicating much of the need for discourse with his clients.
His days as a dental technician are in the rearview — he’s his own boss now. Grinman has picked up nearly 2,000 passengers since jumpstarting his cab driving career, often working 50- to 60-hour weeks, sometimes taking on fifteen-hour shifts.
“When I’m driving, I’m driving outside and I see,” he says. “When I was a dental technician, I was in the lab with four walls every day. My eyes would get tired, focusing on very, very small things. But now, I’m out in the city; I’m out in the world and I feel free. I love my job.”
“Advanced technology and the growth of the sharing economy have created countless new opportunities for individuals who were otherwise unable to earn money for one reason or another,” says Paige Thelen, 28, a Lyft spokesperson.
“We have heard from thousands of drivers that they’ve been able to change their lives and follow their passions because of Lyft — whether that’s to go to college, pursue a career in the arts, or simply make extra money on a flexible schedule.”
Lyft could not verify the exact number of deaf drivers they employ throughout the country, but in San Francisco, the home of Lyft’s corporate headquarters, Thelen estimates several dozen deaf drivers operate out of just that one city. Earlier this year, an Uber spokesperson confirmed that there were roughly 40 deaf drivers working for the company across the U.S.
“Uber is proud that the app is being used by deaf and hard-of-hearing driver-partners to earn a living,” says Alix Anfang, a communications associate at Uber. “We have worked closely with members of the community to add features to make the app as seamless as possible and we are constantly exploring new ways to make it even better.”
Uber and Lyft have the same policies for hiring or signing up drivers, regardless of if they are deaf or not. If their vehicle passes inspection and meets other criteria, deaf drivers can sign up for both services, and their insurance is even the same as hearing drivers.
Though both Uber and Lyft have been bombarded with lawsuits from blind and wheelchair passengers alleging discrimination, the National Association of the Deaf collaborated with both companies to enhance certain features on their apps that cater specifically to deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers. Uber now uses a flashing screen for pick-up request notifications, rather than the previously employed beeping. Their app also indicates to passengers that their drivers are deaf.
Prior to these technological developments, Grinman could not have driven a cab in New York. Both dispatcher radio pick-up requests and street pick-ups would have been impossible for him. And as a chauffeur, one of the most conversational of professions, apart from using sign language to communicate with customers who can understand him, Grinman is isolated from most of his clients. But technology has helped him connect.
When he initially began driving with Uber and Lyft, he used a speaker with a computer’s voice to introduce him to his passengers and tell them that he was deaf. Now Grinman engages with customers using a Boogie Board — a pocket-sized, Etch-A-Sketch-like electronic pad that allows users to quickly write and erase messages on its screen at the push of a button. He can freely pass the tablet back and forth with riders, after providing them with his standardized greeting on the laminated paper.
After responding to a pick-up request where the address and name of the customer appears on a smartphone or tablet map, all Grinman has to worry about is verifying he has the right passenger. To do this, he scribbles their name on the Boogie Board. If Grinman cannot locate his customer because of some logistical mistake — an incorrectly entered or confusing address, for example — instead of having to call his customer, he can text.
This process is rather remarkable to watch given the fact his family didn’t even have a radio in the house while he was growing up in Soviet-era Ukraine.
“We were poor, poor, poor,” Grinman recalls. “When I moved to the U.S., technology was crazy — it was so advanced.”
Today, his life is immersed in a culture of gadgets, gizmos and apps. Grinman is more tech savvy than most people his age — and plenty of millenials, too. He even met his wife, Anna, on Skype.
“I couldn’t live without technology,” he stresses. “[As] a deaf person, I’d be frustrated. I’d be worried. With technology, I feel my life is equivalent to a hearing person’s.”
Navigating through Brooklyn, Grinman’s vehicle is palpably quiet. There’s no radio or conversational chit-chat, just the hum and chortle of his SUV. As Grinman crosses the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan, the city begins to sing its siren song of seduction. A clamoring moan — dull and distant at first, but growing slowly, steadily — greets Grinman’s two passengers as they inch closer and closer to the screaming metropolis. Soon, the staccato yelp of car horns, rat-a-tat of jackhammers, and the mechanical grind, halt and whoosh of subway trains beneath seep into the SUV. Grinman is oblivious to all of it; his only focus is the road.
“I love being in [one of the] biggest and loudest cities in the world regardless of my hearing ability,” Grinman says. “I love the flashing lights, people in action on the street, busy cars on the road … I may not hear anything, but I rely heavily on feeling vibration and sight. When you lose one sense, you gain more in another sense.”
In the noisiest city in America, where sound levels can reach 70 decibels in some of its busiest neighborhoods, and police receive 140,000 noise complaints in a year, Grinman operates in his own silent world.
The body of scientific research on the safety of deaf drivers is limited, but recent studies indicate that deaf individuals can react more swiftly to objects at the edge of their visual field.
“Deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers are just as safe, if not safer than drivers who can hear,” explains Howard Rosenblum, chief executive officer of the National Association of the Deaf, an organization that advocates for the civil rights of deaf Americans. “There is nothing about driving that relies on hearing to make the experience safer.”
Birgitta Thorslund, a disability scientist with the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, agrees.
“Auditory information is perceived from 360 degrees, while the visual perception is 180 degrees,” says Thorslund, who has done extensive research on the effect of hearing loss on traffic safety. “Hearing gives us essential information about time and space.”
In a recent study she conducted, Thorslund examined two groups of drivers: one set with varying levels of hearing loss, the other a control group, comprised of drivers with regular hearing. She used a driving simulator, questionnaires, and in-the-moment reactions while in traffic to ground her findings and conclusion, which is that limited hearing in drivers cause them to use their eyes more vigorously.
“These [deaf] drivers have lived with their disability for a long time,” explains Thorslund. “They have learned to compensate for it. In the traffic situation, this compensation is accomplished by the lower speed, less engagement in secondary tasks and more glances in the mirrors. Possibly because they perceive a higher risk.”
Still, to be extra-cautious, Grinman is hoping to get a hearing aid soon that would allow him to detect abrupt, loud noises, like a police siren. He says his driving record has been squeaky clean in recent years, and his 4.75-star Uber rating — out of a possible five stars — helps support that claim.
“I love to drive because it’s my meditation,” says Grinman. “When I’m driving I feel peaceful, like I’m escaping from reality.”
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Dorian Geiger is a 28-year-old Canadian multimedia journalist, photographer, and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. The New York Times, VICE, Fortune, the BBC, Asian Geographic, and The Toronto Star have featured Geiger’s work. He graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014 and is based out of Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.
Saila Huusko is a Finnish multimedia journalist, award-winning documentary filmmaker, and a conflict resolution and international affairs professional. Al Jazeera, The Guardian, the Village Voice, and other outlets across the globe have featured Huusko’s work. She graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. Follow her on Vimeo, Twitter, and Instagram.