Hearing Link

Learning to drive

Hard of hearing driving instructor Steve Swinton leaning beside his instructor vehicle

Steve Swinton has been teaching people with hearing loss to drive for over 20 years. As well as being a top level (grade 6) qualified driving instructor, he also trains other instructors and is developing a training course to help other instructors improve the way they teach pupils who have hearing loss.

Around two years ago he became aware that his hearing was failing and he is now considered to be hard of hearing himself.

What are the main things to be aware of when you have a hearing impaired pupil?

The most important thing is to find out what level of hearing loss they have and what their needs are because everyone is different. You have to establish a mode of communication that is acceptable to both instructor and pupil. For example, lip-reading is helpful when the car is stationary but you can’t use it when you’re on the move, you have to have something else. It doesn’t have to be from a textbook, it doesn’t even have to be something that the instructor has used with others. Everyone has different preferences, there’s no one-size-fits-all method.

Does it take longer to get someone with hearing loss through their driving test?

Yes. Not because they are less able in any way, but simply because the instruction takes longer. If the instructor doesn’t have an efficient way of dealing with the driver’s communication issues and challenges then it could take a considerably greater amount of time. One thing I have learnt though is that being able to hear the engine isn’t really the issue because many pupils compensate by being sensitive to the vibration of the vehicle through the car seat and through the steering wheel.

Why do you feel a training course for instructors is needed?

Not many driving instructors are deaf aware and even amongst those who say they are, there is no real benchmark. Teaching someone to drive isn’t just about getting them through their test, it is about making them good and safe drivers for life. To ensure this is the case, instructors need to be able to impart good and reliable information. They have to find ways to do this safely, efficiently and effectively if the pupil has communication needs. Many driving instructors don’t naturally have the skills to do this but they can be taught and nurtured.

Two years ago you became a hearing aid user. Has that altered your approach?

I’ve been teaching people with all levels of deafness for over 20 years, so I already had a good level of understanding about hearing loss and how it affects people. I suppose, though, that I now have a new, higher level of understanding. For instance, I was always aware of the background noise issues with hearing aids, now I have first-hand experience of it.

I have to consider it when I eat out in a restaurant where I try to pick a spot so I can sit with my back to the wall. When I’m in the car, I turn down my aids because they over-amplify the noise. I have, however, fully embraced the equipment that is available to help. I don’t see using this equipment as a problem. I actually rejoice in my hearing aids – they make my life so much better. I now feel included. Rather than excluded.

What advice would you offer to someone thinking about learning to drive?

Go for it! Whatever your fears about the communication challenges, don’t worry – there are ways around them. And at the end of it all, you’ll be out there, driving. Think of the freedom!

How can someone find a suitable driving instructor?

There are several channels:

  • The Driving Instructors Association website – http://www.driving.org/ – it has a database of information
  • Facebook and Twitter – there is loads of information to be found on these social media sites
  • Your local adult education college – they typically will have a deaf support unit, which will hold this sort of information
  • Local groups and clubs for people with hearing loss

My own website – http://www.aditraining123.co.uk/ – although please be aware that we can only take local pupils from in and around Bolton and North Manchester areas.

I also have a page on my site with contact details of other “Deaf Aware” driving instructors in other areas around the UK so please do take a look.

What about the driving test?

Things have altered recently and now, if your communication needs are significant, you can have your own driving instructor in the car with you when you sit the test, along with the examiner. This means that your driving instructor can convey the test instructions using the communication methods you have both already established. Your test will also run over an extended time period so the communication doesn’t have to be rushed.

If your communication needs are less significant then you will have a normal duration practical test, and the test centre staff will be made aware of your hearing loss. They will understand your needs better and the examiner will discuss this with you before you set off.

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