SINGAPORE: Like many other private-hire car drivers in Singapore, Steven Chong spends long hours on the road.
For five days a week, the 41-year-old wakes up at 6.30am and starts driving half an hour later, picking up passengers until about 1pm.
He then takes a break for an hour or two for lunch and to meet friends before continuing to drive, ending his day between 8pm and 10pm.
However, Mr Chong is not like most of the more than 41,000 people here who hold a private hire car driver’s vocational licence (PDVL). He is hard of hearing.
The private-hire car driver of three years has hearing loss of 50 decibels - or about the loudness of a normal conversation.
He is one of about 30 to 40 Grab drivers here who are deaf or hard of hearing, said the company's Singapore head Yee Wee Tang, who adds the firm also has about 10 to 15 delivery riders who are deaf or hard of hearing.
In September, the Singapore-based ride-hailing firm signed an agreement with The Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf), with the aim of promoting deaf awareness as well as making the Grab platform more inclusive for those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
As part of this initiative - part of its Grab for Good social responsibility programme - the company introduced a scheme that halves the commission it collects from existing and new drivers who are also SADeaf beneficiaries. Drivers typically pay Grab a commission of about 20 per cent of the fares they collect.
On its part, SADeaf will provide skills upgrading programmes for deaf Grab drivers and delivery riders.
The Grab app will notify passengers that their driver is deaf.
They are advised to use the chat feature in the app to communicate, and the call function is turned off to prevent them from calling their drivers.
A sticker in the vehicle helps inform passengers how they should communicate with their drivers, while flip-cards indicating common requests - such as directions, adjusting the temperature of the air-conditioning and where to drop off - are provided to help in communications between drivers and passengers.
READ: Flexibility, being your own boss, decent income: Why younger people are working as private hire drivers
"THEY CAN DO EVERYTHING EXCEPT HEAR"
Mr Chong previously worked as a delivery driver, transporting electrical equipment until the company he worked for closed down.
He subsequently took up driving for Uber, later joining Grab after the American ride-hailing giant exited the region last year.
When it still operated in Singapore, Uber had a similar programme for deaf and hard-of-hearing drivers called Beethoven - after the 18th century composer who lost his hearing in his 20s.
Speaking to CNA at Grab’s Guoco Tower office through a sign language interpreter, Mr Chong said he chose to remain as a private-hire car driver because he enjoys driving and visiting new places.
He also enjoys the experience of interacting with passengers, which he does through brief sentences - he is able to vocalise some words - as well as gestures and chat messages.
To avoid fatigue, Mr Chong spends no more than eight to 12 hours a day driving.
He also takes the weekend off, spending Saturdays and Sundays with his wife and his six trained pet parrots and chihuahua.
Besides the long hours on the road, his friend Aloysius Lee, 32 - who is also deaf and driving with Grab - said the hardest part of being a driver was obtaining his PDVL, noting he had to take the test four times before he passed.
Mr Chong said he had to sit for the test six times before passing.
The test involves 100 multiple-choice questions spread across the two papers, and Mr Lee found it difficult to remember the answers to health-related questions, as well as the demerit points and fines associated with traffic offences.
“I kept repeating the answers to myself, but when I go for the test I forget them,” he signs.
Mr Lee and Mr Chong said they regularly meet other deaf drivers, to chat and share their experiences on the road.
Deaf drivers are more capable than some might expect, said SADeaf acting executive director Judy Lim.
“Indeed, they can do everything except hear,” she said.
The response from passengers who are assigned deaf drivers has been positive, said Grab’s Mr Yee, pointing to social media posts praising the move towards inclusivity.
Most trips are uneventful, with passengers not making a fuss about his deafness, said Mr Lee.
He also recalled picking up a passenger who was also deaf. Unfortunately they were unable to communicate much during the trip as Mr Lee would not be able to sign with his hands on the steering wheel.
Mr Chong’s most memorable experience with a passenger was slightly different however.
As a driver with Grab’s animal-friendly GrabPet service, he once ferried a passenger who brought along a large husky.
“Even though they were in the back seat, the husky’s snout was so long that it was licking my face as I was driving!” he recalled, noting the passenger was apologetic and offered him tissue paper to wipe the saliva from his face.
CREATING MORE INCLUSIVE WORKPLACES
In recent years efforts have been made to make the workplace more inclusive.
In 2014, the government-funded Open Door Programme - which provides grants to employers to hire, train and integrate people with disabilities - was introduced.
And in June, a Job Redesign Guide for Inclusive Employers was launched by SG Enable and the Ministry of Manpower, to educate companies on how to better integrate those with special needs.
In September, Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad said in Parliament that about three in 10 persons with disabilities (PWDs) between the ages of 15 and 64 are employed.
He noted then that more than half of this employment comes from four sectors - community, social and personal service, food services, administrative and support services and lastly manufacturing.
On Grab’s part Mr Yee notes the firm has made other efforts towards improving the accessibility of its services, such as making its app usable by those with visual impairments. The firm is also looking at improving its mapping functions, so delivery riders with physical disabilities are directed to routes with ramps or other accessibility features.
There are about 60 companies who are currently partnered with SADeaf on employment opportunities for the deaf, said Ms Lim, who notes over the years their partners have included Marina Bay Sands, fast food chain KFC and caterer Select Group.
“We do realise that employers nowadays are more inclusive, and they would like to give opportunities and choices to people with disabilities. So our deaf and hard-of-hearing clients are able to approach us to get matched with employers who are inclusive.”
Ms Lim notes the deaf are able to take on a wide range of jobs, although those that require answering the phone or “lots of communication” may not be suitable for them.
What employers can do is make the workplace more accommodating for them, for example through the use of alternative communication methods such as messaging platforms or equipping staff with skills such as sign language, she suggested.
“With greater deaf awareness, it will definitely make it easier for our deaf and hard-of-hearing clients to be able to get into employment and have their own livelihood,” she added.
Ms Lim notes SADeaf is looking into a “serious and professional programme” to allow employment for people with both hearing and vision loss.
“Right now we do understand that most of these people are simply staying at home,” she said.
“We really hope that one day people with both hearing loss and vision loss will be able to get on board the workforce.”