On a sunny autumn afternoon in the grungy, graffiti-splattered Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, Morgan Wang, a mobile game marketing consultant, is watching the Uber car she recently hailed pull up in front of her apartment building.
Her driver, a short and bespectacled middle-aged man, exits the vehicle and eagerly takes Wang's suitcase, loading it in the back of his metallic charcoal Honda CR-V. Wearing a striped, grey collared shirt, he smiles and gestures towards the vehicle, all while not making a peep.
Wang, a 23-year-old California native, takes the back seat and is handed a laminated piece of paper. Dismay spreads across her face, her eyes absorbing the note's message: Her driver is deaf.
"Definitely something you don't see every day," she says. "How do deaf people drive? It's cool that they can make a living that way — in one of the most chaotic cities."
The driver is Yuriy Grinman, a 56-year-old Ukrainian immigrant. He was born deaf and worked as a dental technician until he signed up to be both an Uber and Lyft driver last year.
"When I lived over there, it wasn't equal," Grinman says of his homeland, through a sign language interpreter during an interview. He came to the United States in 1993. "Deaf people don't have the same access as hearing people. Education opportunities were limited. The majors at college for deaf people were only gym teacher, dental technician, and tailor."
Grinman aspired to be a doctor like his mother, but settled for a career in dentistry, one he would maintain after arriving in America. More recently, after a friend mentioned Uber and Lyft to Grinman, he researched them both, and discovered he was legally qualified to drive their vehicles. He signed up as a driver with the two companies, and within just a few weeks had traded a life of teeth, fluoride, and fluorescent lights for one of speedometers, steering wheels, and Google Maps.
"I never thought I'd do this type of job. I never thought a deaf person could be a driver," Grinman says. "The technology makes it easy. I like that."
The phone apps provide him with customer locations, directions and drop-off points, eradicating much of the need for discourse with his clients.
His days as a dental technician are in the rearview — he's his own boss now. Grinman has picked up nearly 2,000 passengers since jump-starting his cab driving career, often working 50- to 60-hour weeks, sometimes taking on 15-hour shifts.
"When I'm driving, I'm driving outside and I see," he says. "When I was a dental technician, I was in the lab with four walls every day. My eyes would get tired, focusing on very, very small things. But now, I'm out in the city; I'm out in the world and I feel free. I love my job."
"Advanced technology and the growth of the sharing economy have created countless new opportunities for individuals who were otherwise unable to earn money for one reason or another," says Paige Thelen, 28, a Lyft spokesperson.
"We have heard from thousands of drivers that they've been able to change their lives and follow their passions because of Lyft — whether that's to go to college, pursue a career in the arts, or simply make extra money on a flexible schedule."
Lyft could not verify the exact number of deaf drivers they employ throughout the country, but in San Francisco, the home of Lyft's corporate headquarters, Thelen estimates several dozen deaf drivers operate out of just that one city. Earlier this year, an Uber spokesperson confirmed that there were roughly 40 deaf drivers working for the company across the U.S.
"Uber is proud that the app is being used by deaf and hard-of-hearing driver-partners to earn a living," says Alix Anfang, a communications associate at Uber. "We have worked closely with members of the community to add features to make the app as seamless as possible and we are constantly exploring new ways to make it even better."
Uber and Lyft have the same policies for hiring or signing up drivers, regardless of if they are deaf or not. If their vehicle passes inspection and meets other criteria, deaf drivers can sign up for both services, and their insurance is even the same as hearing drivers.
Though both Uber and Lyft have been bombarded with lawsuits from blind and wheelchair passengers alleging discrimination, the National Association of the Deaf collaborated with both companies to enhance certain features on their apps that cater specifically to deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers. Uber now uses a flashing screen for pick-up request notifications, rather than the previously employed beeping. Their app also indicates to passengers that their drivers are deaf.
Prior to these technological developments, Grinman could not have driven a cab in New York. Both dispatcher radio pick-up requests and street pick-ups would have been impossible for him. And as a chauffeur, one of the most conversational of professions, apart from using sign language to communicate with customers who can understand him, Grinman is isolated from most of his clients. But technology has helped him connect.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.