FVTC grad becomes state’s first deaf woman truck driver
By Robert Cloud
Suzie Helgerson has become Wisconsin’s first deaf woman and the fifth in the nation to receive a commercial driver’s license.
A Waupaca resident, Helgerson is now on the road 70 hours a week, driving a truck with her husband Dave.
“When I first met Dave, he was a trucker and once in a while I would ride with him until my youngest daughter graduated from high school,” she said.
Dave, who has been driving trucks for 26 years, is also deaf.
Suzie and Dave each spend 11 hours per day driving over-the-road for CH Hall Trucking headquartered in Stillman Valley, Illinois. They often work seven days a week.
The couple recently had a two-day break and spoke to the Waupaca County Post about the challenges they face as deaf truck drivers.
“We can’t hear everything, but we see everything because of all the mirrors,” Dave said.
“Today’s technology is wonderful,” Suzie added. “We can see air brake leakage. If there’s a problem with the engine, we can feel the vibrations.”
The Helgersons begin and end each trip by inspecting the engine, the tires and the trailer.
Prior to moving to Waupaca, Suzie Helgerson grew up in New London. Dave is originally from LaCrosse and moved here after meeting Suzie in the early 1990s.
Until 2013, the federal Department of Transportation prohibited deaf people from obtaining licenses for truck driving.
Although the ban was lifted, deaf drivers must still obtain a medical waiver before getting a commercial drivers license.
After she obtained her waiver, Suzie Helgerson began a 10-week training program at Fox Valley Technical College, in Appleton.
“They did a lot for me,” Suzie said, regarding the FVTC staff and instructors who helped her through the program. “They made all the videos closed caption and found a wonderful instructor named Jake (Steinbrink) who knew sign language.”
Rob Behnke, chairman of FVTC’s truck driving program, worked with Bruce Rathe, the special needs instructor, to provide interpretters for Helgerson.
One of the interpreters was Kris Orkin, who accompanied the Helgersons on their interview with the Waupaca County Post.
Suzie and Dave Helgerson are also active in Deaf Truckers United, an advocacy organization for deaf truck drivers.
“If it was not for DTU, I would not have been able to get my waiver,” Suzie said.