Michael Fahey: “Deaf? Driving? Surely that’s not safe?” The adventures of a deaf driver

Posted on June 17, 2014

Mention the fact that I’m profoundly deaf and drive and some people’s immediate response is… “Deaf! Driving! Surely that’s not safe! You can’t hear stuff coming! No, sorry, but that should not be allowed.”

My automatic response is to roll my eyes and sigh. It’s not as if all hearing drivers can hear what’s going on around them.

How about the times I’ve pulled up at the side of a car that has music blaring out of open windows? How do I know about the music? I can feel the beat hitting my car and setting it vibrating. As if those guys can hear an ambulance coming up behind them!

But in a way I can understand the response. When I’m driving I need to be much more visually aware of the road than a hearing person to compensate for my lack of hearing. Many times, I’ve been nudged by members of my family to alert me of an emergency service vehicle approaching when it is nowhere in sight.

Obviously, when I am in the car on my own my response to the sirens of emergency vehicles and other traffic noises is much slower than an hearing person, but I think knowing this makes deaf people much more cautious in certain situations.

Another problem is communication with other passengers whilst driving. My older brother (who is also hard of hearing) prefers to drive in silence, ignoring all but the most persistent talk from passengers. On the other hand, I tend (according to my wife) to talk nonstop, preventing others getting a word in!

But in recent years I have attached a second rear view mirror to the dashboard so that I can lipread short comments (and I mean short) by someone sat at the side of me. So now, when I get in the car it’s become a habit for me to belt up, adjust the normal rear-view mirror, and then adjust the lip-reading mirror to the height of whoever is sitting at the side of me.

It can be very much hit and miss, lipreading and driving, and the main thing is that passengers are aware of what is happening. I can only ‘listen’ to their side of any conversation by taking my eyes off the road for a split second when traffic is very light/or in traffic jams and there are no hazards around.

Is this 100% safe? Possibly not, but I once noticed a couple in the car ahead using British Sign Language having a blazing row (well it seemed that way!) and the guy was driving at least 40mph on the Mancunian Way at the time!

With practise and with my wife working together with me (as a team) we do manage fairly well, My wife knows when she can talk because she is also observing the road with me. And she knows to look at the mirror when she speaks so I can see her lips.

Because the mirror is centred around were I am looking I am not taking my eyes off the road ahead…it is much like checking my normal mirrors or using a GPS for directions.

Funny moments are when a person who is not familiar with the system gets in the car and insists on speaking to me. They look at me when they talk, which means I see their face side on (much harder to lip-read) and I therefore tell them to look in the mirror when they speak.

They literally break out into a sweat trying to focus on speaking to the mirror… constantly turning to face me when they want to say something only for me to look steadfastly ahead, seeming to ignore them!

By the time they have worked it out I am dropping them off at their destination…

Mike is a semi-retired fine artist working from his home studio in Lancashire. As a profoundly deaf lip reader, he is just one of a large family with a genetic history of deafness. Mike attended a mainstream school before being transferred to a school for the deaf aged 11. He worked as a landscape gardener for thirty years and married Sara (who is hearing), then attended university as a mature student and gained a BA and MA in Fine Art. He is father to a son (hearing) and daughter (deaf on one side) and is currently preparing for cochlear implant surgery.

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