Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Deaf woman fights for chance to drive a truck — and wins

Frankye Helbig’s husband Dorian is a truck driver, and she thought she, too, could take a liking to that life. Perhaps they could get a long-distance route together, maybe even one day get their own truck and see America.

There was just one problem, one big problem: She was born deaf and speaks only through American Sign Language.   In Florida, there was no provision for a deaf person to take a commercial driver’s license test, a necessary step to get behind the wheel of a truck.  Still, she didn’t give up.

“I had to go ahead and fight,” Helbig said through an interpreter. “The standards were not equal for hearing to deaf, so I wanted to team with my husband, truck driving together.”  She fought for more than a year, and in late February finally took her commercial driver’s test at Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Cecil Center campus, where she’d put in 320 hours of training.

Federal and state representatives came to watch: She had to do a full vehicle inspection, identifying 100 components and giving fixes for mechanical problems. There were three backing maneuvers to make and then a 20-mile road test.

“It was kind of like, eight people staring at her,” Dorian Helbig said. “Eight guys in ties, sitting there watching her, never been in a truck in their lives, probably. That’s the way I look at it.”  Frankye Helbig admitted that made her nervous. Her test lasted longer than usual because she could not use an interpreter, but had to write out notes to each question.  But she passed.

Sharon Caserta, a Jacksonville attorney who specializes in deaf and disability rights, believes that made Helbig the first deaf woman in Florida to get a commercial driving license.  When Helbig was asked if she felt like a ground-breaker, she quickly moved on to a more important topic. “Yeah,” she said. “But I’m just ready to look for a job.”

Helbig is 47 and grew up in Macclenny. She was born completely deaf. At 30, she was given a cochlear implant that gives her some hearing, but she often turns it off. Dogs can be too loud. Even the instruction at FSCJ was too loud, so she turned it off during class.  She smiled. “I like my quiet time,” she said.  Federal standards allow deaf people to drive trucks. And Helbig said there’s nothing that should hold her back.