Indianapolis may test cabbies’ English skills

Visitors' complaints about not being able to understand the heavily accented speech of some taxi drivers has prompted Indianapolis to consider testing the English skills of people applying for city taxi licenses.

The proposal follows complaints by hotel managers that many travelers—particularly those in town for conventions—report they can't understand the city's taxi drivers.

Indianapolis' Department of Code Enforcement is now considering giving cabdrivers an oral English test as part of a larger effort to better regulate the city's taxis.

"If someone is unable to comprehend or communicate, no matter how great their qualifications are, they cannot perform the essential functions of a taxi driver," said Adam Collins, a lawyer who is the city code department's licensing administrator.

Currently, the code department has no standard English test for taxi applicants.

Jeff Sweet, president of the Greater Indianapolis Hotel and Lodging Association, said taxis are "a key cog to hospitality and tourism."

"We're not singling out taxis. This is based on the voice of the customer," said Sweet, the general manager of the downtown Indianapolis Hilton.

In Columbus, Ohio, applicants for taxi licenses must show they can read and write English, but the test doesn't assess oral communication skills.

"We haven't done that. I believe it would be very challengeable" in court, said Sharon Gadd, license manager in Columbus' public safety department.

Indianapolis' proposal raises the question of how good an applicants' English will have to be and who would make that determination.

While any test the city might give could be challenged, Indianapolis lawyer Sheila Kennedy said it is not necessarily out of bounds for a city to make sure cabbies can communicate with passengers.

Kennedy, a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said she has routinely asked students whether a city could require its employees to speak fluent English.

The answer to that question is no—unless that fluency is central to the job, she said.

"Read traffic signs, communicate with fares, read street maps—those are the kinds of skills clearly the city has a right to demand" of cabbies, Kennedy said.

Such testing has been routine in the U.S. for years and standard English tests are now sold by companies and used without complaint by public agencies to test applicants for a variety of licenses, she said.

A test question for taxi drivers might have them say the fares or the street on which a landmark is located, Kennedy said.

When George Akintayo moved to Indianapolis from Nigeria, he said he had no trouble obtaining a taxi license and going to work as a city cabbie.

"I cannot come to America and in four years speak perfect English," Akintayo said. "I have an accent. … A lot of us are from Africa and have a strong accent."

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