De­fy­ing lim­its: deaf and blind Poles get be­hind the wheel


Mo­tor-rac­ing is not for the faint­hearted. But when you are deaf and blind, it takes on a dif­fer­ent di­men­sion.

All 19 driv­ers who took part in this un­usual race on the tar­mac of the Lodz air­port in cen­tral Poland ear­lier this month are hear­ing and vis­ually im­paired.

But like He­len Keller — the Amer­i­can au­thor, ac­tivist and lec­turer who was the first deaf and blind per­son to grad­u­ate from col­lege — they are push­ing the en­ve­lope of their dis­abil­i­ties.

“Out of 19 par­tic­i­pants, 12 had never driven a car be­fore, while seven used to drive be­fore they be­came dis­abled,” said Ma­teusz Kot­nowski, from Poland’s Deaf and Blind Aid So­ci­ety (TPG).

“Some are com­pletely deaf and blind. Those who can still see or hear a lit­tle wear masks and hel­mets to en­sure an equal play­ing field for all,” he told AFP.

Each par­tic­i­pant had to com­plete two timed laps of the cir­cuit while un­der the watch­ful eye of a co­driver. First, though, they had two days of train­ing to get a feel for the steer­ing wheel.

Three driv­ing schools vol­un­teered a park­ing lot, five cars and a hand­ful of in­struc­tors — who first had to work out a lan­guage based on touch to com­mu­ni­cate with the driv­ers.

Zbig­niew Pal­gan, the owner of a driv­ing school, gave out a clear set of in­struc­tions to his deaf and blind driver, whose face showed a de­ter­mined con­cen­tra­tion.

“When I touch the left side of your knee, turn left. When I touch the right side, turn right,” Pal­gan said while de­mon­strat­ing the mo­tions.

“When I touch the top of your knee, straighten the steer­ing wheel, and when I press down, ac­cel­er­ate. When I pull on your knee, brake.”

For safety’s sake, the in­struc­tor could stop the car at any point. But with ev­ery kilo­me­ter, the driv­ers be­came more and more con­fi­dent.

Kamila Do­brzyn­ska, a 30-yearold who is blind in one eye and par­tially deaf, made it up to 50 kilo­me­ters per hour by the end of the straight.

“It’s a weird fear,” she said.

“You don’t know where you are, so your ears and eyes are those of the in­struc­tor. You need to have to­tal con­fi­dence in him,” she told AFP.

Syl­wek Slipek, who is deaf and blind, drove for the first time in his

feel­ing. There’s life — and with wife Ka­sia, born blind, along for the ride to cheer him on.

Rid­ing in the back seat, she gave her hus­band a pat on the shoul­der and said “Good luck” be­fore a woman waved the check­ered rac­ing flag and Syl­wek set off on his first lap.

The 30-some­thing cou­ple said that the event was a way for them to for­get their ev­ery­day prob­lems.

Syl­wek once worked as a su­per­mar­ket clerk but has been on the job hunt for three years to no avail. The un­em­ploy­ment rate for dis­abled Poles is 16 per­cent.

By tak­ing part in the event, the cou­ple hoped to help break stereo­types of those with dis­abil­i­ties.

“Per­haps oth­ers will re­al­ize that if deaf and blind in­di­vid­u­als are able to drive a car, then they can just as well have a job and work,” said Ka­sia Slipek.

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