Fernando Ramirez-Savon, New Mexico’s first deaf person to pass the state’s Third Party Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) exam that allows him to drive a big rig, learned his truck driving skills at CNM.
“He was determined,” said Vardis Gaus, chair of CNM’s Truck Driving Program. With accommodations that CNM provided for him, “Fernando learned how to drive a semi-truck and meet all licensure requirements.”
The accommodations included the use of an iPad during his truck driving training. The iPad was placed in the front of the cab, secured to the dash, where Ramirez-Savon could see it without turning his eyes away from the road. The camera function was turned on and pointed to the back of the truck where the interpreter sat. An interpreter used American Sign Language (ASL) while the iPad caught the communication, and the student could receive the information given to him by the truck driving instructor who sat in the passenger seat of the truck.
The idea for the configuration of the iPad was Erin Wilson’s of the CNM Disability Resource Center (DRC). Erin worked with the CDL instructors for two months prior to the course starting, and was hands-on with the trucks to address all safety issues that the situation presented. Meredith Daggett, also of the DRC, located the adaptive technology and set up the attachments and lighting adaptations needed within the truck.
The DRC provided him with two interpreters for the road trips and a note taker and interpreters for all classroom lectures. CNM also provided the interpreters for the CDL state test.
The state exam is standardized, and meetings took place to make sure the student was reasonably accommodated during the test. Attending the meetings were the associate dean of the School of Applied Technologies, CDL instructors, DRC representatives and state testing officials. Ramirez-Savon passed the test on Sept. 15.
Gaus noted that while Ramirez-Savon is deaf, hearing only very loud sounds, he compensates with his acute vision.
During the 15-week CNM Truck Driving Program, Ramirez-Savon learned how to operate a tractor-trailer through classroom studies and on-the-road driving.
“We are very proud of him and think he has a good career ahead of him,” Gaus said.
Ramirez-Savon said he was fascinated by big rigs ever since he was a little boy growing up in Cuba. His father, a truck driver, would take him on rides in his semi. When he felt bold enough, Ramirez-Savon would start his father’s truck engine — always getting in trouble for it.
Having lost his hearing at seven months (through unknown reasons), he attended a boarding school for the deaf in Cuba where he learned sign language. At 19, he worked for a Cuban police department, detailing vehicles.
In 1994, when he was 24, he decided he was tired of making $50 a month and was ready to try his chances in the United States. He and a buddy built a boat out of a metal tank that they filled with air so it would float and covered it with a wood panel for passengers. He and five others, including a deaf woman, set off to the U.S by sea. After three days of traveling, they caught the attention of a military helicopter by using a mirror to reflect the sun.
Four military boats came to greet them and eventually escorted them to Guayabo, a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico, joining 5,000 other refuges. After six months, he was flown to Miami where he had relatives. In Florida he connected with Catholic Charities and learned the cost of living in New Mexico was less expensive. So he relocated to Albuquerque.
He took GED classes at CNM and obtained his GED. He then started his journey to be a truck driver — only to discover that despite his good health he couldn’t get a commercial driver’s license because of his deafness. He worked briefly for a trucking company. Not being able to drive trucks, he took jobs as a loader at UPS and FedEx. During those years he also became a U.S. citizen.
In 2016, he learned the law had changed that allowed truck drivers to be deaf, as long as they passed a physical exam. That led him to the CNM Truck Driving Program.
“When I showed up at CNM, the DRC was ready to help me maneuver through the program,” Ramirez-Savon said. “They had interpreters and note takers ready for me. I could never have made it without their help.”