Why your next Uber driver might be deaf

Even Uber drivers get hungry sometimes.
Even Uber drivers get hungry sometimes.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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When Juan Paolo Luciano moved from the east coast to Chino Hills, California, he had a hard time finding a job. “Whenever I got a response for an interview, they learned that I’m deaf,” Luciano said. “The interviewer tend[ed] to find an excuse that the interview can’t go forward.”

Eventually, a deaf friend in San Francisco recommended that he should try driving for Uber, and Luciano has now been a rideshare driver for almost three years. Although he drove full-time for Uber and Lyft during his first year, he now mainly drives for Uber. “I was pleased that Uber didn’t screen my disability before getting on the road,” he wrote.

In Austin, Texas in June 2016, John Cernosek signed up to drive for rideshare startup Fasten for similar reasons. “I didn’t have any other jobs available for me because of [my deafness] until I found Fasten,” he said. Now Cernosek drives about 60 hours a week, and Fasten is his primary source of income.

The rise of rideshare apps, as well as other gig-economy startups like Etsy, Airbnb, and others, are providing a whole new set of opportunities for people whose disability—hearing or otherwise—might make it challenging to find traditional employment. “Despite the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act, which protects federal employees, the employment rate of deaf and hard of hearing people is dismally low,” says Howard Rosenblum, chief executive officer of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD).

According to US Census data from 2014, half of Americans with hearing disabilities are unemployed, and the overall unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities is about twice the rate of Americans without a disability. However, Rosenblum pointed out that many more are likely underemployed, meaning their job falls below their skills or potential. Hillary Clinton even raised the issue of unemployment and underemployment among people with disabilities on the campaign trail.

“The main barrier is the attitude of employers who believe that deaf and hard-of-hearing people are not able to perform the job, when the truth is deaf and hard-of-hearing people are dedicated and hard-working employees,” Rosenblum says.

Deaf people are legally entitled to driver’s licenses in all 50 US states and a 2006 appeals court ruled that a United Parcel Service policy against allowing deaf employees to drive delivery vans violated the ADA, sending a warning to other companies about potentially discriminatory policies.

But even when hearing-impared people manage to find a steady job, there are still issues. Luis Ledezma, who has been driving for Lyft in Fremont, California for about two years, said that his biggest challenge is communicating with passengers while he’s driving. “I typically communicate with passengers using [a] whiteboard and black marker,” he wrote. “It would be nice if Lyft [gave out an] electronic board with electronic pen.”

Luciano suspects that a few of his low ratings from passengers may have been a result of his disability, and not his driving. But it’s hard to tell. On the other hand, over the course of a ride, he has also had some very positive experiences with passengers. “The riders were at first awkward to get into my vehicle after [they] learned that I’m deaf,” he said. After spending time with him though, some of them gave him “big thumbs up, signed ‘Thank you!’ and gave cash tips,” he added. He even started a Twitter account, @deafuberdriver, that retweets passenger’s positive impressions of deaf drivers.

NAD is currently working with Uber to make its app more user-friendly for hard-of-hearing drivers (or partners, as Uber prefers to call them). These initiatives include a flashing light to notify a driver of a ride request (in addition to the existing audio notification), turning off the option to call a deaf driver, and a prompt to make sure passengers enter their destinations.

Uber now automatically informs users that their driver is deaf. Notifying passengers that the driver is deaf or hard-of-hearing has its pros and cons, however. Luciano appreciates that he no longer has to “text the riders while driving to let them know that I’m deaf to prevent them from voice calling me.” However, he’s also frustrated that he’s gotten more ride cancellations since the feature was added, which impacts his weekly income. “The riders have their right to cancel the ride, but I felt like it’s discrimination,” he says.

More broadly speaking, whether people who work for gig-economy startups are employees or independent contractors is a relevant question for the general population, but it’s even more so for those with disabilities, according to two experts from the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN).

For example, for someone who’s collecting Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), supplementing their income by working in the gig economy and reporting that income can “have an impact on the amount of benefit that they receive,” says Cheryl Bates Harris, the NDRN’s disability employment specialist. Not reporting income could also have repercussions, of course, especially with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Those working in the gig economy also don’t always have access to health insurance or other benefits that traditional employees rely upon. This is a serious consideration for individuals who might need more frequent medical attention. “It will depend on the person, but lack of worker’s comp coverage, the lack of unemployment benefits… it applies to both people with disabilities and people without,” says Kenneth Shiotani, senior staff attorney at the NDRN. “But I think the effect could be more harmful for some folks.”

As for Luciano, “everything changed due [to] the fare cuts and too many drivers around here,” he said. “I have been driving less for Uber.” He recently got a second job at a multinational shipping company and appreciates the stable hours and benefits.

Uber and Lyft may have given these drivers an income opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have, but as they say, mileage may vary.