By Erica Chang
A legally blind World Champion triathlete is suing three triathlon organizations over regulations that force visually impaired participants to wear blackout glasses during the marathon portion of a race. The rule was imposed to establish equal conditions for all legally blind competitors, but has consequently forced partially blind participants to compete while fully blinded as well.
Aaron Scheidies, a 30-year-old athlete from Detroit, filed the lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. He is suing the triathlon governing bodies of USA Triathlon and International Triathlon Union, as well as the national triathlon sponsor 3-D Racing for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a sweeping civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.
“Under the ADA, Aaron Scheidies is a qualified individual with a disability, entitled to a reasonable accommodation,” said Richard Bernstein, Scheidies’ attorney. “But ‘leveling the playing field’ by making an individual more disabled is ridiculous and exposes them to great danger.”
Blackout glasses pose a danger not only to the competitor, but also to fellow racers around them, according to the lawsuit. For Scheidies, who still retains about 20% of his vision, the glasses completely blind him, prohibiting him from using the residual vision he ordinarily relies on.
“The result is loss of balance, vertigo, disorientation and significant risk of falling,” said Scheidies. “When I tried running with the blackout glasses with a guide, I hit my head on a pole, fell into a ditch and ran off the road several times all in a two minute time span.”
Scheidies suffers from a hereditary eye condition known as Stargardt’s disease. The disease has slowly deteriorated his central vision since he was 9, and he was legally declared blind by the time he was –.
The ITU enacted the blackout rule in 2010. “The rule exists to create a 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,” said the ITU in a statement.
However, the ITU is currently implementing a new classification system for blind participants that would allow the organization to eliminate the need for blackout glasses. They are hoping to have the new system ready by 2013, but Scheidies remains skeptical, considering that the organizations have made similar promises in the past.
“I am not doing this for myself. I am doing this as an ambassador for the blind and visually impaired community,” said Scheidies, who is not seeking monetary compensation. “Over the last 2 years we have tried everything to work with USAT and ITU but they have not listened. I fear people will get hurt and others will be detoured from participation.”
Scheidies has competed in over 200 triathlons, and has been named a World Champion seven times and a National Champion eight times. He has successfully completely the Iron Man Triathlon, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon.
“I have spent every second of my life figuring out how to succeed with the vision I have. 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.“