A Fight for Visual Rights

By Seth Baker

A legally blind triathlete filed a lawsuit this Wednesday against three private triathlon organizations he feels are discriminating against visually handicapped competitors.

Aaron Scheidies, a 30-year-old legally blind athlete from Detroit is suing the three defendants, USA Triathlon (USAT) and International Triathlon Union (ITU) who govern the races and 3-D Racing who sponsor the races in Michigan.All three are being accused of failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 22-year-old mandate enacted to eliminate discrimination against individuals with disabilities.

The case stems from a rule imposed in 2010 by the International Triathlon Union that requires blind or visually impaired athletes competing in triathlons to wear “black out glasses,” which “eliminate any residual vision and result in a legally blind athlete.”

The forced wearing of these glasses is being deemed in violation of Title III of the ADA, which makes it illegal to discriminate against a qualified person with a disability.

Scheidies attorney  Richard Bernstein, who is fully blind himself, explains that his client falls under this terminology, deemed a “qualified individual with a disability” under ADA standards. For Scheidies, he explains, “This rule neglects the single most important factor in overcoming a disability, accommodation and adaptation.”

Scheidies suffers from a hereditary eye condition that attacks the central vision, Stargardt’s disease, leaving him with around 20% of his vision intact. Yet Scheidies does not feel any more capable than those with a complete loss of sight.

” There are many fully blind individuals that are more successful than others that have some sight.  They are just better at adapting.”

A seven-time triathlon World Champion and eight-time triathlon National Champion, Scheidies  successfully completed the 140 mile Ironman Competition before he began to be  disqualified by USA Triathlon for refusing to wear the glasses.

He argues that forcing competitors to entirely lose their sight poses “substantial danger not only the competitor but those around them.” This is due to the racers inability to use their vision for balance and coordination that comes from eyesight.

When  he attempting running wearing the glasses with the aid of a guide, Scheidies states “I hit my head on a pole, fell into a ditch and ran off the road several times in a two  minute span.”

He now refers to the two New York races where he wore the “black out glasses” as the “ most humiliating and scary times of my life,” explaining that “the thought of having to wear those glasses makes me want to hang up jersey and shoes and call it a career.”

In a recent statement from the International Triathlon Union, they attempted to explain their reasoning for this new mandate. The glasses, which are only worn during the racing portion of a triathlon, was implemented  “to create a fairer competition for all athletes because partially blind athletes and fully blind athletes compete in the same category and partially blind athletes have an advantage over those who are completely blind.”

Yet for Scheidies, he cannot find any reasonable justification for the alleged discrimination he has faced. “A fully blind individual spends every second of their life figuring out how to succeed with the vision they have.  This rule puts the partially sighted person back to day one of figuring out how to succeed.”

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