Deaf or hearing-impaired Grab drivers are becoming a norm in Malaysia

Nor'Ain Azizan shows the sign used in her car to indicate to passengers that she is hearing-impaired.

Joey Kow works as Grab driver five days a week. “I enjoy it because it enables me to meet people and earn a living,” says Kow, who also works at a bakery. Kow might sound like any Grab driver, but she’s one of 500 drivers and delivery-riders in Malaysia who are differently-abled.

Born deaf, Kow communicates using sign language. But that doesn’t pose any problem for her as a driver. “When passengers encounter a deaf driver, they are usually amazed – or shocked but in a good way,” she says though an interpreter.

“It’s not every day you meet someone who has overcome their (hearing) disability (this way) to be independent,” says Kow, 37, a single woman who lives with her mother in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

She says the experience has been mostly positive. “I’ve not encountered any prejudice. Communication can be an issue, especially when people speak and I can’t reply verbally. So we resort to visual communication.”

She says passengers are told in advance they’re getting a deaf driver, but they tend to overlook it. “Sometimes a passenger might not realise they’re getting a deaf driver, so they keep calling. When I don’t respond, they think I’m not coming.”

Such instances are rare, she says. Though she can’t pick up phone calls, Kow replies with a text message that she’s on her way. When she get there, she just reminds them that she’s deaf.

Joey Kow, who was born deaf, is one of 500 differently-abled Grab drivers and delivery-riders in Malaysia.

Since 2018, Grab Malaysia’s 'Break The Silence' campaign has created more job opportunities for the deaf and hearing-impaired. This has helped Malaysia become one of the few countries where regulations allow the differently-abled to obtain a commercial driver’s licence.

Grab Malaysia also provides resources including sign guides to help deaf or hearing-impaired drivers identify themselves to passengers, and passengers with flashcards to help them communicate with the drivers.

“However, some passengers prefer to use their phone (by typing out a message or showing pictures), or hand gestures and facial expressions,” Kow says.

As for not hearing other motorists horn at her, Kow says most drivers just flash their headlights when she doesn’t respond to their honks. “I use my rear- and side-view mirrors a lot. When I see drivers flashing their lights or if a vehicle comes close, I quickly move aside,” she says.

She add that having a sign on the car to indicate a deaf or hearing-impaired driver would be useful, but currently there’s only one sign available for inside.

Meanwhile, Nor’Ain Azizan, who is partially deaf, works full-time as a Grab driver in KL – six hours a day, five days a week. “I enjoy it, and it’s convenient because it gives me time to care for my child,” said Nor’Ain, 30, who is married and has an eight-month-old boy.

Her husband, also deaf, drives for the company on the weekends. Nor’Ain, who hails from Perlis, has been driving for Grab for two-and-a-half years. She says she even drives outstation to Port Dickson and Genting Highlands when she’s free.

She says she hasn’t encountered much discrimination or harassment as a hearing-impaired or female driver.

“I try to minimise conversation while driving because I don’t want to give the wrong message. That minimises the chances of getting harassed. Also, if the passenger is male, they usually sit in the back of the car,” she says.

Because she’s not completely deaf, Nor’Ain can speak a little and also hear when other motorists horn at her. “The rear- and side-view mirrors are very important. If I see another vehicle getting close or flashing their lights, I quickly give way,” she says.

She adds there are impatient motorists who get annoyed because she drives a little slower and more carefully, so they might glare or gesticulate at her, which is upsetting. But she takes everything in stride. “I tell myself to be patient because they don’t know they’re dealing with a deaf driver.”

Sometimes, her passengers don’t always remember she’s hearing-impaired either until they get into the car, she says, even though she sends them a text message after accepting a drive request to inform them she’s deaf, so that they’ll wait for her text messages instead a phone call when she arrives.

Plans are in place to create a more seamless experience for hearing-impaired drivers and passengers. This includes having in-app cards to notify passengers if their driver is deaf, GrabChat as the default communication channel, and in-app communication guides for passengers to better interact with their driver.

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