May 6, 2008
Glenard A. Munson
Driving Schools and the Deaf:
Advice to Instructors
When a driving school gets a request to teach a
deaf student to drive, one of three possible
scenarios are put into motion.
ONE, the school might refuse the student, due to a lack of a qualified
instructor to work with the deaf, not realizing that this is a basic
violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990;
TWO, the school might agree to enroll the student, only to find that the
training is done piecemeal, by an unqualified instructor;
THREE, the school might actually have an instructor who is qualified,
under ADA guidelines.
Sadly, the first two scenarios are the more common ones. The simple
truth is that it is hard to locate a program that is geared towards
teaching the deaf to drive. Part of that may be that teaching driving
requires a process that is different for the deaf. This article will
provide an explanation of the "differences" in the teaching process, and
how driving schools can work with Deaf students.
A WORD OF CAUTION: Instructors who can hear
and who may speak English rather well, must suspend some of their past
education regarding English syntax. Many deaf people use American Sign
Language (ASL), which has a different grammar system from that of
Remember that Deaf and hard of hearing people tend to look at the person
who is speaking or signing, (in order to see what is being said or
signed and also because facial expression is also an important part of
"reading" what a person is saying). Obviously, this is increases the
risk factor while driving. To adjust for this you should make a habit of
leaning forward a bit and doing your signs in a location where they are
easy for the deaf person to understand while also keeping his eyes on
Before you begin the drive, use the FOCUS ("look at") sign to remind
them to look ahead. Also, plan on frequent stops to go over items in the
California Driver Handbook, or other text, that the student may have
problems understanding. It would also be useful to carry a "whiteboard",
about the size of a 3-ring binder, to permit both of you to communicate,
in writing, to each other, along with a legal pad for more permanent
notes. A laptop might also be useful.
You should be aware that, just like the English language, ASL has
several "dialects." As such, a person who has been trained in one ASL
"dialect", may not understand YOUR dialect. For this reason, we
recommend that all training begin with a one-to-two hour session (or
more as needed), in a classroom environment, where you can go over the
program with the student. You and the student must come to an agreement
over signs, your control of the vehicle, and a complete understanding
that the student is to keep his or her eyes on the road. This can
be a challenge!
Remember, in order to be a safe driver, a driver needs to also be
confident, and one of your main jobs, as an instructor, is to instill
confidence. This is done by being knowledgeable about your subject,
showing a calm and confident manner yourself (even when the student
makes mistakes), and by communicating well. The only difference here is
that you will be silently communicating, rather than verbally. This also
means that you MUST be "on top of your game". This is NOT a job for an
inexperienced instructor, or for one who doesn't like working with
adults and seniors, since they present similar stress factors for the
Step One: Begin with the Instructor.
There are, basically, two ways to communicate with the deaf: ASL
(American Sign Language) and SE (Signed English). In either case, a
fluency in English is required. This not only means speaking, but it
also means an understanding of sentence structure, words usage and
modifiers of those words, and a good command of vocabulary. The last is
especially important, since many "spoken" words are not easily
translatable to the deaf.
Choose an instructor who fulfills these requirements before sending
him/her to the world of the deaf. If the instructor has difficulty in
making himself/herself understood to the hearing population, the
troubles will increase when they attempt communications with the deaf.
In addition, an extraordinary sense of confidence, patience, and (dare
we say) courage is mandated also. If an instructor is easily frustrated
when teaching the hearing, they will be inundated with stress when
working with the deaf.
The above statements are NOT meant to construe the idea that the deaf
are difficult or dangerous to deal with. Quite the opposite! A poor
instructor becomes the danger when he or she cannot successfully
communicate with ANY student, hearing-impaired or otherwise.
Beginning with early grade school, most hearing
people learn sentence syntax, "stressors" to inflect words, and the
difference between homonyms and antonyms. When "speaking" to the deaf,
many of these important lessons in spoken English are cast aside. Much
of the conversation, especially when it comes to driving instruction, is
done in "pidgin ASL", where extraneous words are discarded. For example:
for a hearing student, you might say, "Turn left at the next street.",
while you would sign "Next street, turn left" for the deaf student. The
instructor must be able to re-direct his or her thinking into
ASL differs from SE by the fact that ASL attempts to convey an idea or
concept located in a sentence, while SE attempts to accurately convey
each word in a sentence. As an instructor, you will be using the
"concept" approach, rather than the "literal" sense. The instructor must
have a command of vocabulary to do this. For example, in ASL, the sign
for "reverse" does NOT mean go backwards, it means the opposite of
"obverse" (think of a coin…heads is the obverse, tails is the reverse).
So how do you tell the deaf student to reverse 60 feet, next to a curb,
for their drive test? You can't just do the sign for "back" and then
"up" since the signs would be "back" (the opposite of front) and "up"
(the opposite of down). In truth, since you are driving a vehicle, most
deaf students will grasp the idea, since they are intelligent enough to
grasp the concept that you must be "talking" about a driving situation.
Think of different ways to say the same
thing. For example, in ASL, the sign for the number 3 is often used as
the sign for a vehicle. Simply making your hand into a modified "3"
handshape and moving it backwards, away from the mirror, usually
suffices to convey the idea of "backing up." This is an example of
a special type of signs called "classifiers." Classifiers allow you to
show the direction and manner in which you want the vehicle to move.
Trust your student to understand you. They are used
to struggling with the "hearing" people trying to talk to them, and in
my experience, they are incredibly skilled at translating your "signs."
NOTE: The above is part of a seminar
Glenard A. Munson provides for driving instructors. His
interactive program includes video clips of sign language being
used in a literal sense, as he speaks over the program, to
explain why some may be inappropriate. He would like
feedback from deaf people regarding the problems they
encountered while learning to drive. Additionally he welcomes
and would greatly appreciate suggestions from anyone
You may contact him at:
Glenard A. Munson
Statewide Driving School
California Driver Education Association
4441 Auburn Blvd. Suite P
Sacramento, CA 95841