Can the hearing-impaired drive? Despite court orders, Chennai RTO doesn’t think so!

A citizen journalist recounts the harrowing experience of a hearing-impaired person trying to obtain a learner's driving licence in Chennai.

Despite a government order directing State Road Transport Offices (RTO) across India to issue Driving Licences to the hearing-impaired, and court orders to the effect, the ground reality seems to be the exact opposite. RTOs still follow age-old rules to grant (or not grant, in this case) an opportunity to obtain the learners’ Licence (LLR) and eventually, a driver’s licence to people with hearing challenges. At least that’s what my recent experience has shown.

RTO apathy

I recently accompanied a hearing-impaired person to an RTO in Chennai, hoping for him to obtain a Learner’s License (LLR). Here is a brief overview of the events that unfolded at the RTO and the ordeal that this person was put through.

We carried all the required documents required for LLR  (online application, address proof, medical certificate, etc) to the RTO in Chennai (Thiruvanmiyur location) and paid the requisite fees of Rs 380 at the counter.

Next, we went to the inspector who signs off on the application and allows the applicant to take the LLR test. He asked the applicant to turn around and stand. We were under the impression that the applicant was going to be tested for hearing different sounds, but we were in for something entirely different.

The inspector started asking the applicant questions as he would to any other person: What is your name, What is your father’s name, and the like. The applicant can hear sounds but is unable to respond to speech or recognize speech patterns. He lip reads, but since he had his back turned, all he could do was acknowledge hearing a sound from behind. The Inspector immediately denied the application, citing “ear defect.”

At this point, we tried to refer to the court order and explain that it was only required for him to hear sounds and that driving is mostly a visual activity (95% of the time it is vision that is required, with very little hearing). No relaxation. We were asked to go and meet the RTO.

So, we headed to the RTO and explained the entire situation all over again. He then seemed to understand. He directed me to do a sound test by clapping several times behind the applicant and have the applicant respond with the number of claps. This activity was repeated several times and the applicant provided a correct response every time. The RTO then stated that he would give us a second opportunity, and have another inspector test the applicant.

We were sent to another location where the other inspector was conducting road tests. On meeting us, the inspector asked me a few general questions and then wanted to test the applicant. But once again, even after explaining to him that the applicant can respond to sounds, he started asking the applicant questions from behind. Unsurprisingly, the results were the same!

The inspector concluded that the applicant cannot respond to speech (because according to both inspectors, speech was also sound) and hence, he could not possibly approve the application. It sounded as if both the inspectors had spoken to each other by the time we got to their location. They had already decided that they would deny this application, but did not want to return the fees paid and so went through this entire process.

To make things worse, the first inspector even made a few objectionable statements:

“Why do you want to get a drivers license for a deaf person? There are safety concerns for both the applicant and others on the road.” Where is the record that indicates that hearing-impaired persons are unsafe drivers?

“Instead of the ‘deaf’ person trying to get a license and drive, he could hire a driver if/when he needs to go out.”How many people in India can really afford a driver? And even if we could, this statement was a way of dictating that a hearing-impaired person should be dependent on someone else for his entire life.

“Driving is not a right.” Another example of an inspector using his authority to frame his own rules.

We finally ended up at the RTO officer’s cabin to wind up proceedings, and collect a written statement from both inspectors that stated that the applicant was being denied an LLR because he cannot hear and that they would be willing to reconsider if/when the applicant’s hearing improves.

I tried to persuade the RTO officer to make the inspectors understand the situation but he denied outright, saying that he could not interfere in their decision. This was the final nail in the coffin for my companion’s application.

The RTO officer suggested we go to the commissioner to appeal, but we would have to pay another set of fees for that. In this entire confusion, the applicant was keenly observing what was going on and by now had grasped that he would not be allowed to learn because of his hearing impairment. What this would have done to his self esteem is not a tough guess.

Unanswered questions

A few clarifications are necessary on the following in the light of the events that transpired at the office that day.

Who is considered ‘deaf’ under the law? Is it a person who cannot hear at all, or someone with reduced hearing ability? According to the RTO, anyone belonging to the latter category is deaf; however, there is no such mention in the court order.

Can speech or language testing be considered appropriate ‘sound test’ for a hearing-impaired person?

What will happen to those who are hearing-impaired but cannot speak? They will also be unable to respond to the same questions that this applicant had been asked. So, will they be refused a licence, or even an LLR?

Was the RTO right to have refused return of the fees paid, or use it towards having a second inspector test the applicant?

Finally, is it really worth going to the Commissioner’s office in this case?

Lip service to inclusion

Personally, I strongly feel that the applicant is definitely capable of driving and will be among the most safest drivers. I also sense that he is not the only one going through this ordeal, so what can we do to get this message heard and press for measures to be taken so that RTOs cannot harass such individuals?

Governments keep boasting about various measures for differently-abled persons, coining new terms such as “Divyang”, but what is being done for such individuals in reality? There seems to be no clarity or consistency in the way court orders are implemented. We must ask how to stop this so that the differently-abled feel included and their rights as Indian citizens are upheld?

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