When Suzie Helgerson (pictured) set her sights on becoming a commercial truck driver, she didn’t let any roadblocks, including hearing impairment, stand in her way.
Helgerson, of Waupaca, recently became Wisconsin’s first female hearing-impaired commercial truck driver, passing her commercial driver’s license test in August.
For decades, obtaining a CDL was out of reach for hearing-impaired drivers. Working through the organization the National Association of the Deaf, a group of 40 applicants sought exemption from the Department of Transportation from a hearing standard that barred them from driving commercially.
Citing research that shows deaf drivers perform as safely and as well as their hearing counterparts, the U.S. Department of Transportation lifted a ban prohibiting hearing-impaired drivers from operating commercial motor vehicles in 2013. The action opened the door for aspiring drivers like Helgerson.
About five or six years ago, Helgerson, who had ridden alongside her husband, a truck driver of 26 years, decided that after raising children she would like to take the wheel herself. With restrictions lifted, it didn’t take Helgerson long to enroll in the truck driving program at Fox Valley Technical College.
The staff and instructors with the Truck Driving Department at FVTC wasted no time preparing to accommodate their new student’s needs.
Rob Behnke, the school’s Truck Driving Department chair, worked with the college’s special needs support instructor Bruce Rathe to ensure Helgerson’s success. The two took steps like adding closed captions to the department’s video resources and finding an interpreter who could work with her.
Serendipity intervened on Helgerson’s first day when an instructor from the program saw her talking to Behnke. Noticing that Helgerson was hearing impaired, instructor Jake Steinbrink asked if he could step in, and he began communicating with Helgerson using sign language. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Steinbrink, along with an interpreter and another student, worked alongside Helgerson as she completed her 10-week course.
When it came time to take her final test, though, Helgerson was on her own with the tester. She contends that Steinbrink was more nervous than she was, and when she passed, he was as happy as she was.
Behnke acknowledges that many remain skeptical about the abilities and safety of hearing-impaired drivers. He’s seen firsthand, though, that Helgerson is as skilled a driver as anyone. Where a typical driver might listen for a train at a railroad crossing, Helgerson uses her other senses to feel the presence of a train.
As for truck driving companies, in the face of a driver shortage, Behnke said they are supportive of removing barriers as long as they can ensure safety precautions are in place.
Helgerson recently started a job with CH Hall Trucking, which takes her to Arizona and California.
Reflecting on her schooling, the challenges Helgerson recalls have nothing to do with her disability. They’re the same ones any driver would face: backing up and shifting.
Helgerson’s greatest hope is that others will follow in her footsteps thanks to what she’s accomplished.
“If they want to become a truck a driver, I will say come here,” she said, “Don’t give up your dream. It’s about your skills; it’s not about the hearing.”
Behnke is ready to welcome more hearing-impaired students. His department has grown, too, through its experience with Helgerson.
“As teachers it helps us grow and become better teachers,” Behnke said. “I encourage more people to be positive rather than negative.