It took some extra effort, but J. Parrish Lewis passed his driving test and has loved the freedom of the road ever since.
At 16 years old, I finally got my Driver License. I say “finally” because I had spent most of my fifteenth year, daily polishing my 1971 Volkswagen Beetle with Turtle Wax. Daily is not an exaggeration: that car SHONE like a white hot sun.
I bought the Bug, which I named Herbia because it was a feminine version of Herbie (the love bug, yeah?) and it was the fifth Beatle. I wasn’t too clever in those days. It cost me about $500 that I earned working at a local produce market, and it was the best thing I had ever owned. I loved that car so much that I doodled at least a hundred cartoons of a VW Bug.
When I was 15, I took driving classes at Sears. It was a class of perhaps 15 kids sitting around in some strange room next to the Men’s Clothing department, with a teacher droning on about something that I assume was related to driving. I understood absolutely nothing, because I didn’t have an interpreter and the teacher mumbled. I don’t think it mattered all that much, because the rest of the class was mostly hearing boys who had smuggled in styrofoam cups that they placed on the floor in front of their desks. Every minute or so, when the teacher wasn’t looking, they’d all spit a nasty stream of tobacco juice into their cups, secretly chewing the tobacco they had brought. I passed on that offer during the break.
Instead of spitting tobacco, I had my driver’s manual out, propped against the desk in such a way that the teacher wouldn’t notice that I was busy learning the laws instead of trying to decipher what he was saying. It was a waste of time being there, but a requirement in order to get a permit.
When I got the permit, I was ecstatic. This was a ticket to freedom! Freedom! Freedom with the legal requirement of an adult passenger to supervise me! Hooray!
Well, it made me positively jubilant anyway. It was a definite step in the right direction: the road.
I took the hands-on driving lessons like everyone else at first, in a little car with a grumpy lady who I didn’t actually understand any better than the Driver’s Ed teacher. Her grumpiness increased proportionately with the degree of difficulty I had with the concept of a clutch. She seemed to find it rather disagreeable when I kept making the car lurch forward in shuddering motions, and she wasn’t happy that I made her 24-oz Big Gulp erupt all over the dashboard. But don’t worry, eventually, I got the idea, and the dashboard got cleaned.
Then the day came. 16 years old! I can get my license! Yes!
[Slightly, ever so slightly, bumps the curb turn parallel parking during the test]
I think you can guess how devastated I was in that moment, lip-reading those two words and hoping I was wrong. Happy Birthday, right? But I didn’t give up, because I felt I had done well. It’s just that clearly, the curb had moved. So now I had to go home and learn how to avoid magical mobile curbs that come alive during tests.
Thankfully, I had my visiting Grandfather’s bottomless patience to help me practice, along with a family friend who volunteered the use of her car, which she called Walter, the Wonder Car. Well, I practiced parallel parking in Walter, the Wonder car, over and over between two trash cans that were supposed to represent cars. I practiced for hours, and with their guidance that I still use today, I am an award-winning parallel parker. Still waiting for the award to arrive in the mail.
Before I go on, let me mention something: No one parallel parked in my city. THERE IS NO NEED to do it! I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, and I don’t know about right now, but when I was a kid, there was pretty much an abundance of parking spaces. No one parallel parked.
Anyway, armed with my new parallel parking superpower, I took the test and passed. The curb did not move this time. If it had, I would’ve used my ninja parking powers on that curb. I walked out of the DMV with my license in hand, holding it as if it was the Holy Grail. I know I’m deaf, but I think I heard an angelic chorus. That was the second greatest thing I had ever owned by that point.
I can’t remember whose idea it was, but not long after that, my older brother and I decided we’d take a road trip from Columbia to visit family in Barnesville, Georgia. Round trip, that’s roughly about 1,500 miles.
Unfortunately, because that was over 20 years ago — my God, has it been so long? — I couldn’t give you a detailed description of the trip, but I can tell you a few highlights. It starts with freedom.
I remember driving the Bug down I-95 feeling exhilarated by the sense of freedom that tingled in my fingers as I gripped the steering wheel. Yes, I sped a little bit, probably no more than 8 mph over the limit, but otherwise I was pretty obedient about following all the laws of the road.
We had the freedom to explore. We were two teenage brothers on an adventure. Looking back, I’m a little surprised that we were allowed to go so far from home, but we somehow earned enough trust to do this. The trip down was mostly about the need to GO, GO, GO, go toward adventure, with family that we missed dearly waiting at the end for us.
After a visit full of treasured moments to remember, the trip back showed us that freedom to explore is something you can begin to get used to, and a sense of accomplishment comes with the completion of an adventure. I have since then recommended that teenagers take a road trip after they get their license, as long as their parents feel they’ve earned the necessary trust. Yeah, not always easy.
In all of that time on the road, I never felt that being deaf was a disadvantage. We learn to adjust, if we take the time to do it. We can be more vigilant, watching for those sneaky emergency vehicles. It’s like when Daredevil became blind and developed enhanced senses. Yeah, just like that, except for some reason my senses didn’t develop quite that well, and I lack fighting skills of any kind.
As a deaf driver, I know I’ve got to be extra watchful. Know what that leads to? It means that I am often the first person to pull over to the side of the road, noticing the distant lights of a fire engine or an ambulance or a police car heading in my direction. The other drivers are still driving, perhaps the sounds of the sirens have not yet reached their ears. When I approach intersections, I cast a quick glance in both directions just in case an unseen emergency vehicle is about to come through.
Let’s be honest.
You know how there are good drivers and bad drivers among hearing people? We have both, too. Over the years, a lot of my fellow deaf community members have said that deaf drivers are better drivers because we are better at paying attention, we’re not distracted by the radio, and so on. The truth is that, just like any of the group, we have both fantastic drivers and terrible drivers. We have skillful, attentive drivers who pay close attention to the road, and we have drivers that break all the laws. Just like any group. It has nothing to do with our hearing.
When a deaf person drives well, it’s because that person believes there is a responsibility to drive well. Nothing to do with being deaf. When a deaf person is a terrible driver, it’s because that person doesn’t take the time to be careful, and perhaps doesn’t feel that sense of responsibility. Again, nothing to do with being deaf. A responsible deaf driver pays attention, and an irresponsible deaf driver may not. You can say the same for any group.
I got pulled over once for having a burnt out taillight. I didn’t know it was out, or I would have had it fixed right away. When I told the police officer that I was deaf and needed him to write notes to me to communicate, he wanted to take my license.
“Deaf people cannot drive,” said the police officer.
Honestly, I was flabbergasted by his comment, because it was the first time anyone had ever said that to me. By then, I had been driving for nearly 10 years with a perfect record. I had gone on multiple road trips. I had never been in a car accident, sometimes because I kept a loose eye on other cars and managed to stay out of the way of a few wayward drivers.
“Deaf people cannot drive,” he said. Seriously. Was that a sneer I just saw?
At the time, I was with my then-fiance (and now wife of 16 years) who jumped out of the car and give him an earful. I can stick up for myself, but in this case I enjoyed that she was sticking up for me, and I let her do it. He gave the license back.
Skillful driving doesn’t require the ability to hear. Those that fear the idea of us being on the road are primarily worried we won’t pull over for emergency vehicles. The truth is, more often than not, I’m pretty sure we’re good at getting out of the way. When laws are broken, it’s the same stuff that hearing people do. Red lights are run, stop signs ignored, speeding in a school zone happens. Yes, like any group, there are irresponsible drivers that break these laws. Nothing, nothing, nothing to do with how much we hear.
I have a friend who has flouted all kinds of laws, mostly related to speeding. In college we were roommates, and he had a motorcycle then. He’d give me rides downtown on the back of his motorcycle, doing wheelies on the highway at 80 mph with me desperately hanging on the back, even though I said not to do it. Totally irresponsible. But at the same time, I’ve never known anyone more skilled with maneuvering a motorcycle or a car. I told him repeatedly that he should be a stunt driver for the movies, because then at least he could do it legally and get paid for it.
This guy, who honestly flaunted the law in many ways, is also a person who has taken a motorcycle safety course and encouraged me to do the same. He gave me tips on how to be a safer driver. He scoffed at the laws, and he tested his own limits, but at the same time, he was attentive.
Personally, I believe in being a responsible driver, even if this means I’m a boring driver. I follow the laws of the road aside from adding an extra 5 mph or so on a busy highway. I stop for the stop signs. I don’t purposefully run a red light. I keep my eyes constantly searching for pedestrians, for cars coming out of nowhere, for dogs that might run across the road — because once a dog raced out from within a copse of trees and I ran over it before I could stop. Heartbreaking.
On top of all this, I watch for police cars. Not because I’m breaking any law, but because I don’t want to deal with another incidence of a police officer wanting to take my license just because I am deaf. Who would?
Just give me a ticket for the burnt-out taillight, and let me go on my way.
Previously Published on MunkyMind.com