Deaf Woman Fights for Chance to Drive a Truck — And Wins

Frankye Helbig’s husband, Dorian, is a truck driver, and she thought she, too, could take a liking to that life. Perhaps they could get a long-distance route together, maybe even one day get their own truck and see America.

There was just one problem, one big problem: She was born deaf and speaks only through American Sign Language.

In Florida, there was no provision for a deaf person to take a commercial driver license test, a necessary step to get behind the wheel of a truck.

“I had to go ahead and fight,” Helbig said through an interpreter. “The standards were not equal for hearing to deaf, so I wanted to team with my husband, truck driving together.”

RELATED: Hearing-impaired can obtain Ohio commercial driver license

She fought for more than a year, and in late February finally took her CDL test at Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Cecil Center campus, where she had put in 320 hours of training.

Federal and state representatives came to watch: She had to do a full vehicle inspection, identifying 100 components and giving fixes for mechanical problems. There were three backing maneuvers to make and then a 20-mile road test.

“It was kind of like, eight people staring at her,” Dorian Helbig said. “Eight guys in ties, sitting there watching her, never been in a truck in their lives, probably. That’s the way I look at it.”

Frankye Helbig admitted that made her nervous. Her test lasted longer than usual because she could not use an interpreter, but had to write out notes to each question.

But she passed.

Sharon Caserta, a Jacksonville attorney who specializes in deaf and disability rights, believes that made Helbig the first deaf woman in Florida to get a commercial driver license.

When Helbig was asked if she felt like a groundbreaker, she quickly moved on to a more important topic. “Yeah,” she said. “But I’m just ready to look for a job.”

Helbig, 47, grew up in Macclenny. She was born deaf. At 30, she was given a cochlear implant that gives her some hearing, but she often turns it off. Dogs can be too loud. Even the instruction at FSCJ was too loud, so she turned it off during class.

She smiled. “I like my quiet time,” she said.

Federal standards allow deaf people to drive trucks. And Helbig said there’s nothing that should hold her back.

“I depend on my eyes to focus,” she said through interpreter Amanda Shook. “I’m more focused on the road. If I’m hearing, I’m more distracted.”

Joe Lackey, instructional program manager at FSCJ’s commercial driving program, agreed, saying Helbig was an excellent student, one of the best.

“Hearing, as critical as it is, is only one of the six senses a driver needs,” Lackey said. “A driver has to be able to see, feel, even smell your cargo, your brakes, engine issues. Dealing with Frankye, she’s hyperaware of everything that’s going on because she doesn’t have the distraction.

"She drives every day in a car; anybody who has those skills can just transfer them to driving a truck. I don’t see this as being that big of a disadvantage.”

Caserta, the attorney, was working for Legal Aid when Helbig came to her. She has since moved to Morgan & Morgan. Caserta said the state would not agree to test Helbig because there was a statute saying deaf people could not be issued a commercial driver license.

Caserta said the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration called that discrimination and pressured the state to change it or risk losing federal highway money. That changed things.

Lackey, the FSCJ program manager, said everyone was soon on the same page. “In the end, the state really was right there with us, making sure that Frankye got the opportunity,” he said.

They said that since Helbig’s success, at least four other deaf people have come forward since to seek licenses.

That’s a success story, but for Helbig, there’s still the matter of finding a job.

That’ll happen soon, Dorian Helbig said. He’s a Navy vet, an affable New Jersey native with a beard reaching to mid-chest. He drives a truck for the postal service, usually to South Carolina and sometimes to points south in Florida. Five nights a week, about 3,000 miles a week.

He dreams of one day working alongside his wife.

“We’re together, other than work, 24/7,” he said. “Camping, fishing, hunting, kayaking. We’re both big on the outdoors. We just want to do some traveling. We just want to maybe purchase our own truck. We want to start seeing the country.”

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