Should Partially Blind Triathletes Be Forced to Run Wearing Blackout Glasses?

A world-renowned legally blind athlete is suing three triathlon organizations over a controversial rule that requires all visually impaired runners to wear glasses that render them completely sightless.

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Aaron Scheidies, 30, is a six-time triathlon world champion and seven-time national winner. He is also legally blind, with only 20% of his vision intact.

On Wednesday, the athlete filed a lawsuit against three triathlon groups contesting a rule that requires all legally blind and visually impaired runners to wear “blackout glasses” during competition — forcing them to run in complete darkness — in order to level the playing field between partially blind and completely blind competitors.

Scheidies filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan saying the rule violates the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). He argues that requiring a visually impaired person to compete completely sightless puts the athlete and those around him at risk.

“It is medically dangerous and ethically wrong,” says Scheidies, who is also a physical therapist in the Seattle area. “If you have any degree of blindness, you live every day trying to succeed with the vision you have. To succeed and be an independent person is not about how much vision you have. It is how well you accommodate or adapt to the vision you have.”

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Since 2010, Scheidies has attempted the New York City Triathlon twice with blackout glasses in order to qualify for the world paratriathlon championship and describes the races as the “most humiliating and degrading experiences of my life.” In one race, he missed the water table and hit a volunteer. “I was constantly apologizing in the middle of the race to people I was running into. I don’t want people in these races to have a new stereotype of paratriathletes that we are out of control. I don’t live my everyday life like that.”

The glasses rule was adopted by USA Triathlon, International Triathlon Union (ITU) and 3-D Racing LLC — the three organizations Scheidies is suing — in March 2010 when officials announced that the rule would equalize competition among the blind, and lead to the triathlon’s inclusion at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“The rule exists to create fairer competition for all athletes because partially blind athletes and completely blind athletes compete in the same category and partially blind athletes have an advantage over those who are completely blind. This rule is in place only on the run portion, not in the swim and bike portions,” ITU, the Canada-based group overseeing more than 140 affiliated national federations including USA Triathlon, told Healthland in an emailed statement.

Originally, visually impaired athletes competed in different groups based on their sight levels. But USA Triathlon announced that runners qualifying for ITU paratriathlon world championships would run under one category. In its statement, the group says that “due to the limited number of visually impaired athletes who have historically competed on the international level, only one classification currently exists.”

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“[The organizations] have shown the most remarkable and horrible judgment I have ever seen on the part of defendants,” says Scheidies attorney, Richard Bernstein, who is also a blind triathlete. “The federal law will never allow you to say ‘in order to compete, you must make yourself more disabled than you already are.’”

Bernstein claims it’s hypocritical for the organizations to require visually impaired runners to wear blackout glasses when, for example, they forbid runners from using headphones because they hamper awareness of their surroundings and increase the risk of distraction injuries.

When the rule was enforced in 2010, Scheidies practiced using the blackout glasses with his running guide. “Within two minutes of running, I fell and hit my head on a fence pole, then I fell into a ditch. I was all over the place.” Scheidies and Bernstein argue this endangers all race participants.

“I’ve lived my whole life this way,” says Bernstein, referring to his own blindness, “but if you take someone like Aaron, who has some vision, and make him totally blind, it is totally unnatural. The body gets nauseous and dizzy. You should never do that someone.”

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According to Scheidies and Bernstein, about 95% of legally blind people have some slight vision, and blindness is very specific to each person. Some may still see light or shadows. Scheidies — who lost his central vision at age 9 to a juvenile form of macular degeneration called Stargardt’s disease — sees only blurs.

“By putting them all together and saying they are all the same shows a total lack of understanding and discrimination,” says Bernstein.

Scheidies is not seeking monetary damages and Bernstein is handling the case pro bono.

In its emailed statement, the ITU said they are in the process of implementing a new evidence-based paratriathlon classification system. They proposed the elimination of the blackout glasses rule for 2012, but were unable to do so without a new classification system. “ITU is committed to having the new system ready by 2013, which will result in a full revision of the ITU competition rules,” they said.

USA Triathlon says it is “aware of the recent actions taken by Aaron Scheidies and…continue to examine the issue of blackout glasses in conjunction with the ITU.”

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Scheidies says that over the past two years, he has seen no compromise. “We send emails, legal letters, we protest, we tried to get a blind person on their committee. They just don’t care,” says Scheidies.

Scheidies and other members of the blind community have offered the triathalon groups alternative solutions, like regrouping winners based on sight levels or creating a system that adjusts running times based on disability. So far, no response.

“When the ADA was made, we were improving and educating society about these things and this is like a huge step back,” says Scheidies. “I want to be an ambassador for the sport and break down barriers, but we still have discriminatory rules like this being made.”

Read Aaron Scheidies’ complaint here.