Hearing-impaired Uber driver recalls rare instance of discrimination

Gelo Gonzales
Hearing-impaired Uber driver recalls rare instance of discrimination
With over 1,500 trips under his belt, Mike – one of the drivers under Uber's 'Beethoven Initiative' – recalls the one time a passenger made him feel bad about his disability

MANILA, Philippines – His name is Mike Eballa. He’s a “partner-driver” for ride-sharing giant Uber. He’s been one for 5 months to the day with 1577 trips under his belt and a 4.5/5 rating. Like many other Uber drivers, he believes that the tech company has been of great financial help to him. 

There is one thing though that might surprise passengers a bit: He’s hearing-impaired. Over the course of 5 months, things have been pretty smooth sailing for the 39-year-old driver – save for one instance. 

At a media event held at Uber’s office, Thursday, Oct 13, Mike recalled that one time when he was made uncomfortable about his hearing disability. Picking up a group of young individuals in Manila, Mike overheard his passengers snickering about his condition. Mike is hearing-impaired and not completely deaf. He heard the group pointing out the disability in a way that he didn’t feel too great about. He kept silent though, and opted not to confront. 

Mike is just one of the hearing-impaired Uber drivers in the Philippines now. Uber’s “Beethoven Initiative” is designed for him and others like him. According to Uber, 6 in every 1,000 households in the Philippines have a household member who is deaf. The condition makes it hard for individuals to find work. In the Philippines, Uber says that 120,000 locals have difficulty finding work because of the disability.  

The “Beethoven Initiative” is essentially a set of features that make it easier for the driver and the passenger to communicate. These are: 

  • Flashing trip request. This feature makes the Uber app flash repeatedly to notify the driver of a trip request along with the existing audio notification. 
  • Text-only communication. Passengers can’t call a deaf or hard-of-hearing driver when they want to provide additional instructions. Passengers can only text. 
  • Hearing disability notification for the passenger. The passenger receives a message that their driver is hearing-impaired. The message is shown after the driver accepts the ride request. 

The last item in the list was how Mike’s offending passengers found out that he was hard-of-hearing. 

Safety concerns

Lawrence Cua, Uber’s general manager for the Philippines, says that the program is also a directive towards being completely non-discriminatory towards hearing-impaired drivers who want to make a buck on their platform. Cua says they don’t discriminate between an individual who’s only slightly hearing-impaired and one who’s completely deaf. 

Cua also acknowledges concerns regarding the safety of espousing such an open platform. 

“Studies have shown all over the world, drivers who are hearing-impaired actually have fewer accidents than regular drivers. That’s a statistical fact. They are more attentive, they tend to be more focused on the driving – and that actually leads to safer rides overall,” Cua said.

Cua also presented several references to support his statement:

  • A 2008 study from the Emergency Care Research Institute (ECRI) said that individuals with hearing impairments are not at an increased risk for a crash.
  • Statements from the World Federation of the Deaf that claimed that almost 100 countries around the world allow deaf people to obtain driver’s licenses, and that deafness does not limit a person’s ability to drive a car.
  • A 2014 report about the US Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) decision to allow deaf truck drivers to obtain commercial driver’s licenses. 

The “Beethoven Initiative” features officially rolled out a month ago in the Philippines. In the US, it was first launched in 2015, and is currently available in 400 cities worldwide. – Rappler.com


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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.