Deaf People and Commercial Driver’s Licenses

A close up of large truck traveling on a road, with the sky and trees in the background.

As recently as 2013, deaf people were prevented from obtaining a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) because they had to pass a hearing test. This meant that deaf people were unable to get many jobs which require a CDL, such as commercial truck driving or bus driving. After advocacy from deaf organizations, in 2013 the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) stopped requiring that all CDL applicants pass a hearing test. However, a special waiver is still needed for deaf applicants. Efforts continue to remove the waiver requirement, but for now, this waiver means that deaf people have a path toward earning a CDL license.

What is a CDL?

A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) is required to drive certain commercial motor vehicles. The National Association of Deaf People (NAD) states that a commercial motor vehicle is a motor vehicle or combination of motor vehicles that weighs more than 26,001 pounds or is used to transport 16 or more passengers including the driver, or which carries hazardous materials.

This license requires specialized knowledge and training. Most drivers must earn a CDL through their home state. After completing training with a registered training provider, applicants can take the CDL skills test and/ or knowledge test. 

How to Obtain a Waiver

The process of obtaining a CDL waiver starts with filling out a federal hearing exemption application. This gathers information about the applicant, such as their personal information, their driving record, and what vehicle(s) they would be driving.

It typically takes several months for this application to be reviewed.

Once the waiver has been approved, the deaf CDL holder will need to reapply for a waiver every two years. 

The FMCSA cited research in its 2013 announcement about hearing waivers that shows that deaf drivers are just as safe as hearing drivers. It also cited the NAD’s arguments that modern technology has transformed communication in trucking because drivers increasingly rely on smartphones and other accessible ways of communicating with dispatch. The NAD also found that deaf drivers face fewer distractions behind the wheel than hearing drivers do.

Providing Access

Deaf students in a CDL training program must be provided with appropriate accommodations, and often different types of accommodations will provide the best access for different parts of the program. It’s important to use an interactive process to learn about the student’s access preferences and find ways to ensure success across all parts of the program.

Because a CDL training program can include activities like driving, where the student’s eyes need to be on the road, it can be important for the instructor and the student to discuss the in-cab experience and goals before getting on the road. Service providers should also be brought in to discuss atypical situations; for example, quick hand signals can be established for situations in which there is not time to interpret a full sentence, or if the interpreter does not fit in the cab.

Success Stories

Since the new waiver policy went into effect, many deaf people have earned a CDL and have gone on to find work using it. Here are some of their stories:

Suzie Helgerson

Wisconsin’s first female deaf truck driver.

“Sirens can easily be detected from the mirrors, and we use our eyes, especially peripheral vision, more than hearing truckers do… Our eyes are our ears.”

Stuart Randle

One of five deaf people who tried to earn a CDL in Florida in the past five years, as of 2022—all of them were successful.

“It’s the only life goal I had – a bucket list item.”

Frankye Helbig

Told that she could not become a professional truck driver, she fought this decision—and won!

“I truly love my work. After doing this for five years, I know this is what I want to do until I retire.”

#DeafSuccess: Frankye Helbig,
Professional Truck Driver

“In Orlando, it was my first time backing into a bay and I struggled a bit, but finally was able to get back in. Soon after, a man walked out to my truck to talk to me. I indicated that I couldn’t hear and the he said, “Impossible. You can’t be.“

I gestured toward my truck to show that I certainly could and he responded that it was inconceivable. Illegal, even.”

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