Justin Brooks has dreamed of the open road since he was a young child, riding along in the front seat of his grandfather’s truck on shipping routes.
But it wasn’t until several years ago that Brooks was even eligible for a commercial driver license. The 37-year-old Spokane, Wash., native has been totally deaf since birth, a disability that long disqualified him from following in his grandfather’s footsteps.
This month, Brooks became the first deaf student to graduate from Spokane Community College’s commercial driving program, and he departed on April 27 to Kansas City, Mo., where he has secured a job with a major trucking company.
Speaking through a sign-language interpreter last week, Brooks explained how he began pursuing a federal disability waiver nearly a year ago, which allowed him to forgo a hearing examination that would typically accompany SCC’s four-week driving course.
“The college provided interpreters to make sure I had access,” Brooks said. “Everything was ready to go when I got the final approval.”
School officials made sure all course materials were in writing and placed a large, fish-eye mirror on the dashboard of a semitruck used for training students. That way, while Brooks was in the driver’s seat, he could understand the instructor by watching an interpreter who was seated behind him.
“He was a great student,” said driving instructor Ted Buit. “He already had a great understanding of how the tractor and trailer worked in conjunction with one another, and what to look for. It made my life easy as an instructor.”
Brooks and the interpreters also made up some signs of their own to quickly communicate special truck-driving terms, said Sally Hillebrandt, a supervisor with SCC’s Disability Support Services.
The disability office has been accommodating students with hearing impairment for decades, but almost always in a classroom setting.
“The logistics with truck driving is obviously a little bit different than the average environment because you’ve got somebody behind the wheel,” Hillebrandt said.
With his commercial driver license, Brooks joins hundreds of other deaf people who have become truckers since the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, changed its policy in 2013 under pressure from advocacy groups.
“It took a lot of hard work on the part of the National Association of the Deaf to teach the trucking community, that whole industry, that deaf people can drive a truck and are very, very safe,” Hillebrandt said.
The National Association of the Deaf has cited research showing deaf drivers are just as safe as hearing drivers, in part because they are not distracted by noises such as the loud vibrations inside the cabs of big rigs.
“It’s the same as me driving my car,” said Brooks, who got his standard license when he was 16. “You know, I use my eyes a lot, and I’m checking the mirrors constantly to see traffic around me.”
He dismissed the idea that he must be able to hear the sirens on approaching emergency vehicles — that’s what the flashing lights are for.
“If I’m checking my mirrors, I’m going to see those flashing lights,” he said. “I think I actually use my eyes more than a person who can hear.”
Another advocacy group, Deaf Truckers United, has compiled on its website a list of news articles about deaf people who have earned their commercial licenses. For example, there’s the Wyoming man who had to go to Texas to find a school that could train him, and the woman from the suburbs of Chicago who toiled to become a trucker like her father and grandfather.
Brooks said he inquired about a trucking career after graduating from high school in 1999 and was told it wasn’t possible. Ever since, he said, he has bounced from one unsatisfying restaurant job to the next.
“I really didn’t like it,” he said. “I need a job where I can get out more, and that’s why I decided to go back to school.”
Brooks praised SCC for making the driving program accessible to him, and he looks forward to hitting the road soon in a long flatbed or a commercial van.
“They thought it might be challenging, but it really did go quite smoothly,” he said. “This school, I feel, is really a great place for deaf students.”