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Brenda Palmigiano
Advocate for Deaf truckers

For many years, the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has had a rule on the books requiring drivers seeking to earn Commercial Driver's Licenses (CDLs) to be able to hear a whisper no less than 5 feet away. As any Deaf driver knows, driving is primarily a visual activity. The noisy rumble of mufflers, radios, etc., serve to blot out any sounds coming from the road, even for hearing drivers, and since all drivers close their windows when the air conditioning is on, they can't possibly hear any outside noises. Thus, the hearing requirement serves no useful purpose, and discriminates against otherwise qualified deaf drivers seeking CDLs.

The Deaf community has wanted to get this requirement off the books for years. CDLs apply not only to truck drivers, but those driving shared vans, tour buses, and other commercial vehicles—good work if you can get it.

When Dean DeRusso became Deaf Systems Advocate at the Regional Center for Independent Living, and invited his new clients to share their concerns with him, Brenda Palmigiano, an NTID/RIT alumna, told him about the obstacles facing Deaf trucker, both in training and employment. He asked her to compile figures, and she did. They developed a survey for Deaf truckers.

Looking to fulfill an old dream, but also to experience what it was like, she enrolled in truck-driving school, and "faced the worst nightmares and obstacles a Deaf female trucker could have."

DeRusso asked Palmigiano to set up a Facebook page for Deaf truckers in New York State. She called it "Deaf Truckers United," and convinced DeRusso that they should include out-of-staters, since Deaf truckers across the nation were affected by the Federal restriction. As Deaf truckers joined, they invited others. DTU now has more than 325 members.

On February 1, 2013, the DOT granted 40 applications from Deaf drivers seeking waivers (exemption) from the hearing requirement that had prevented them from obtaining CDLs. Each driver's safety record was carefully reviewed. Comments from the public were requested. Some 570 persons and organizations filed comment, overwhelmingly supporting the waiver. It was a victory . . . although DTU, as Palmigiano notes, wants to get the hearing requirement removed completely from the books.

Palmigiano's story shows the power of grassroots advocacy, and the effectiveness of social media when used as a networking and organization tool.

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