Wendell Pratt can’t hear what his Uber passengers say about him, but he is used to reading their reactions when they learn he is deaf.
Some stare at him through his rearview mirror; others check their phones to make sure they have the correct driver, or pull up their own set of directions to follow. And one man who climbed into Pratt’s 2012 Toyota Prius a few months ago couldn’t hide what Pratt took as apprehension.
“He kept looking at me,” said Pratt, 45, of Frederick, Md. “He was very short and standoffish. It was his attitude I could see.”
For Pratt, an Uber driver who has been deaf since infancy, it’s not unusual for passengers to express astonishment at the idea of a hearing-impaired driver. But the majority are friendly — none more than a rider’s boxer who hopped in one day and greeted Pratt with a lick to the face.
A new initiative would put many more like Pratt on the roads.
Uber is teaming with a leading nonprofit group for the deaf to attract more hearing-impaired drivers, the company announced Tuesday. Already, the company says, hundreds of drivers who are hard of hearing are picking up fares for Uber in the Washington region.
The effort by Uber and the nonprofit Communication Service for the Deaf aims to expand employment for those who have difficulty hearing normal conversation even with a hearing aid, a population of 8 million in the United States, according to Gallaudet University.
Deaf and hearing-impaired people face staggering unemployment: 7 of 10 hard-of hearing people in the United States are without work or underemployed, according to the Communication Service for the Deaf.
The nonprofit has created technology to connect the hearing and hearing-impaired for decades and is spending more than $1 million on its part of the initiative with Uber. The company declined to say how much it is investing but said it wants to become a leader in offering hearing-impaired people a way to earn a “flexible living.” (Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos is an investor in Uber.)
“We have been trying to work on a variety of things with transportation services for people who are disabled,” said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who is chairwoman of the council’s transportation committee and spearheaded efforts to make ride-hailing services available to the disabled in 2015. “This is especially exciting because it deals with employment.”
Recruiting programs will include online Uber video guides in American Sign Language and job fairs in places with large deaf populations, such as Austin, San Francisco and Washington.
The partnership is “an opportunity to build bridges between people and influence a new perception of the abilities and humanity of deaf people,” said Chris Soukup, chief executive of the Communication Service for the Deaf, who called the deaf employment situation a “crisis.”
Soukup said many employers are averse to hiring hearing-impaired employees, fearing an insurmountable communication barrier. “It’s a perception that we’re working to correct,” he said. “A deaf person can be successful in every employment circumstance.”
But, he said, the on-demand economy has opened up opportunities for the hearing-impaired that never existed.
Although Uber adopted accessibility features for deaf drivers in May 2015, the company has faced criticism over its accommodations for disabled customers. In December, Uber launched wheelchair-accessible service in the District after years of complaints that it had not done enough to serve the needs of the disabled.
Cheh declined to speculate on whether the company’s latest move was an effort to make amends, but she said, “Whatever is motivating them, I say congratulations.”
Some passengers fear drivers who have trouble hearing would not be aware of the presence of emergency sirens. Advocates for the hard-of-hearing counter that deaf drivers make situational adjustments like anyone else — that, for example, a keen awareness of emergency vehicles’ flashing lights would mitigate the risk of a crash.
In May 2015, Uber rolled out features to help drivers who have trouble hearing to better navigate the ride app.
At first, some drivers couldn’t tell when a new ride was requested because the alert came via a beep. To fix that, Uber implemented a flashing light for ride requests and began sending riders a notification that the driver is deaf or hard-of-hearing. It also prompted passengers to enter their final destination in advance and added text-only communication to enable the driver and passenger to converse.
Pratt, a part-time YMCA swim instructor, says the 20 to 30 hours a week he takes Uber fares have become essential to his livelihood.
“Before, I had a lot of problems paying my bills,” he said. “I struggled.”
He makes up to $400 a week driving, minus the $120 he pays weekly through a car lease with Uber, he said.
He hopes passengers can be open to deaf drivers as more of them are on the road. But he understands their wariness, too.
On a recent afternoon, he picked up a family in Frederick to take them to a local Best Buy.
“They were just really astonished that a deaf person could drive,” he said, noting their stares. “Once they saw me driving, they realized I was a safe driver. They got out and said thank you.”
An earlier version of this story said taxi regulations preclude the deaf and hard-of-hearing from driving cabs. However, the D.C. Taxicab Commission allows deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers to operate taxicabs, black cars, and limousines, provided a doctor’s statement reflects that there is no disability preventing the driver from offering safe service to the public.